On Psychological Vulnerabilities & Coping with Adversity

Photography: Ruth Schooling
Words: Tamara Kisha Tan

The world banded together to celebrate noteworthy strides in women empowerment, ‘leaning in’ and groundbreaking movements like #metoo, in celebrating International Women's Day last month.

PAUSE contributed to the global conversation by paying tribute to ‘Women of the Modern World’ in our March issue online as well as through our PAUSE Salon on 'Embracing the Power of Vulnerability', which took place at fitness and wellness co-working space, Core Collective

The salon panel discussion profiled three female speakers from prominent positions in different industries. They took time out of their busy schedules to discuss this oft-ignored topic of human vulnerability.

The speakers at the salon, in order of speaking, were: 

  1. Dr Cheryl Kam [MBBS (London) BSc (London) GDFM (Sin)] – General Practitioner, Holistic medicine practitioner 
  2. Sufen Paphassarang – Adv BodyTalk Practitioner 
  3. Anita Kapoor – TV Presenter, Speaker and Emcee 

Dr Cheryl Kam shared about what 'vulnerability' connotes, within the realms of conventional medicine. She also talked about certain ailments women should particularly look out for. Alongside that, she highlighted medical developments charting the heart-brain connection, which challenges the 'mechanical' way modern medicine looks at the heart. The salon report on what she shared is as follows: 

MODERATOR: Please introduce yourself and touch a bit on what your job currently encompasses. 
DR CHERYL KAM: I’m a General Practitioner / Family Physician, and after ten years of practising in the UK and Singapore, I have found that applying a holistic approach results in better outcomes for my patients.   So I have trained in various methods including functional medicine, mind body approaches, mental health and nutrition.  I apply these techniques on top of offering allopathic (conventional) medicine where needed. I am a little obsessive about finding out and continuously uncovering what it means to be healthy, well, and at peace with our natural bodies and mind.  
MODERATOR: Please tell us about the other modalities that you’re trained in, e.g. hypnotherapy etc. and why you decided to look into them, beyond your medical degree?
DR CHERYL KAM: Over time, seeing many patients, I saw that with every physical ailment, things were unbalanced already, at an underlying level – not just in the mind, but also on an emotional level, and sometimes on a spiritual level.  
A critical area of healing is what we term psychological vulnerabilities.  These are tender spots in a person’s emotion due to incompletely healed hurts, loss, grief that lead to coping mechanisms that served us well to cope with the adversity.  Over time if not addressed, might begin to affect our relationships, and subsequently our physical functions.  I wanted to understand this for myself and my patients.
To explain further, many of us erect ‘walls of perfectionism’ and a lot of issues come up because we feel that we have to be ‘in control’ all the time. Some others cope by being a people-pleaser, and some others numb themselves. There are various tactics to cope until you're ready to visit the real, underlying issue that bothers you.
A lot of the times, because of our lifestyles we chose to lead, we don't allow ourselves to address these issues. We're 'too busy', and we never sit still. But funnily, if we do let ourselves to sit still, the buried issues we have been suppressing, come up; if not, then we go for therapy so that there is someone who dedicates their time to guide us in our journey of addressing these issues.  
MODERATOR: How about the heart-brain connection? How connected are they and does the vulnerability of one, affect the other?

Everything is connected, whether you like to hear it or not. 
— Dr Cheryl Kam

DR CHERYL KAM: Everything is connected, whether you like to hear it or not. Recently, the gut-brain connection has been receiving a lot of media attention. But the heart and brain connection deserves the time of the day as well. On a very physical level, if your heart is not pumping hard enough, there will not be sufficient blood in your brain to think, and you might faint!
However, there's this other exciting measurement called heart rate variability and coherence. It can be measured easily mainly when one is stressed because being in that state brings out a clear reading. So, in other words, heart rate variability readings are a reflection of the balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. And by looking at the reading, you can assess whether you are stressed, too stressed or relaxed.
Our parasympathetic and sympathetic systems both function involuntarily, i.e. not something that we can switch on and off; therefore it is very amazing that we now have this avenue to examine and keep track of it.
The monitoring of heart rate variability is a very powerful tool because you literally can stick on a reader onto your ear or wrist and the reading that comes up is reflective of what is going on at an ‘unconscious’ level. 

When you have coherence in the reading, everything in the body flows! Perhaps the Chinese Medicine physicians had known along when they talked about ‘Chi’…
— dr cheryl kam

Interestingly, it has also been proven that you can ‘exert positive thoughts’ to change the graph readings. When you have coherence in the reading, everything in the body flows! Perhaps the Chinese Medicine physicians had known along when they talked about ‘Chi’… it is something worth thinking about and paying attention to.
MODERATOR: Regarding healthcare-related issues, what do you think women are most vulnerable to? What ailments should women be looking out for that they could be susceptible to?
DR CHERYL KAM: I would like to talk about two essential things that women go through, though I would like to thank the men who are here tonight for their support – men as much as women need to embrace vulnerability.
The first thing I will talk about is women going natural cycles like menstruation, pregnancy etc. These are all natural occurrences that encourage us to slow down. Mainly it’s about embracing these periods in our lives, because it is a necessity to have ups, and it is a necessity to have downs.  I believe this is what makes women more able to tune in to the cycles of nature and people, and what makes us feminine, caring, nurturing, understanding.  

... Every woman is born with the natural ability to bring a baby from the womb to life without actually needing medical intervention.
— dr cheryl kam

The other thing that is seen as a vulnerability in women, but is something powerful, is our ability to give birth – every woman is born with the natural ability to bring a baby from the womb to life without actually needing medical intervention.
But we receive so many mixed messages about what to do with our bodies during pregnancy etc. that it leads us to a situation where we begin to doubt ourselves because everybody doubts us. I would say that it’s much harder these days for a modern woman to have a ‘normal, natural birth’ as it is ‘over-medicalised’.
The other issue I think more women should be aware of is heart disease, frequently thought of as a man’s disease.  What is less known is that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. Within the types of cancer that women are more susceptible to, breast cancer is the most common - 15% of all cancer deaths among women. 
MODERATOR: So how can we stay away from having heart disease and cancer?

DR CHERYL KAM: There isn’t a magic pill that I can prescribe or a herb to recommend, but what I believe is that an increased focus on what goes on within, can help the situation. In fact, integrative medicine believes in different levels of wellness and healing: right at the bottom of the pyramid, we have the physical level, and then we have the mental level and the emotional level and the spiritual level at the top. 
Dealing with issues at the physical level is elementary and will only get us so far. While doctors try to deal with a patient’s symptoms, we have to realise that the REAL problem that is bringing about these symptoms, is not being addressed at that point.  
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that we have to listen to ourselves more. For example, having the flu is a pretty standard occurrence, and we ply ourselves with medication so that we can carry on with our lives, as though nothing has occurred. But having the flu is the body's way of telling you to slow down; it is communicating with you through physical symptoms. As mentioned, what we usually do is take antihistamines, decongestants, etc.  What happens then? Well, the body becomes quiet, but it doesn't get to deal with the infection.

Did you know that mucus is produced to wash pathogens out of our bodies? i.e. when we have phlegm, this is what the body is trying to do.
— dr cheryl kam

Did you know that mucus is produced to wash pathogens out of our bodies? i.e. when we have phlegm, this is what the body is trying to do. But the standard practice is to stop that process with medication, to get rid of the phlegm production so that we don’t feel inconvenienced. But then this allows the pathogens to ‘sit around’, and they take an even longer time to leave our bodies. So I think this is indeed something we all have to think about when using drugs.   There is a case for using to using the latest technology and medications to our benefit.  
MODERATOR: Not many people see the things the way that you do; I think things are moving forward and people are having a more open-minded. But when it comes to what's inside and our hearts, our emotions and the health of our mind, it is all about inner work. Of course, you can't replace modern medicine if you have a wound and that's gushing you need to go to the hospital, but when it comes to personal wellness, I think I agree with Dr Kam, that there is a lot more we can do for ourselves than we realise.

Dr Cheryl Kam graduated from King's College London and has over 10 years of clinical experience in the UK and Singapore. She has also received functional medicine training at the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, and Advanced Nutrient Therapy and Brain Biochemistry by the Walsh Research Institute, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Dr Kam's east Asian heritage brings to the therapeutic relationship a natural sense of energy balance, and she understands adaptogenic herbs from both a botanical medicine and traditional Chinese medicine viewpoint. She is a member of the American Botanical Council. Certified by the London College of Clinical Hypnotherapy, and versed with CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), she has an understanding of mind-body medicine, bringing depth into consultations where emotional wellness may be a limiting factor in recovery. Have a question for Dr Kam? Email us at hello@thepausemag.com or find her on Facebook.