We'll see you at the Mind-Gym

Photography:  Shine Tang  Words: Ferina Natasya Aziz

Photography: Shine Tang
Words: Ferina Natasya Aziz

One would think that to keep the physical body healthy, proper nutrition, signing up for a gym membership (and actually going for it), and regular health checks would suffice. Yet one area that we commonly overlook is the mind: When was the last time you went to a mind-gym?

The idea that we can’t see the changes in the brain doesn’t mean that there is no action happening in that part of the body. 

It’s easy to train other muscles of the body, but perhaps the brain is the hardest muscle to actively do anything about - you can’t see it or do workout repetitions!
— Dr Veronique Elefant-Yanni, psychologist and psychotherapist,

Not all of us have access to a therapist, so here are some tools that may serve help the majority of us maintain good mental health:

Writing Your Thoughts Down

Old-school pen and paper continues to be relevant despite the advent of technology. For many people, the act of writing a journal helps them to reduce overall stress. For those that might find this daunting, don't worry - it's not about writing your next novel, but about helping you get into a state of mindfulness, which would in turn help you to manage your emotions and quality of thought, better.

Always start small if you've never tried doing this: just 5 minutes of free writing at the start or at the end of your day. Even within such a short duration, the act of writing helps to 'center' a wandering or overactive mind. It teaches it to be present. It exercises it and allows you to actively engage with what you are feeling and thinking at the moment.

Concurrently, writing let's you 'flush out' the emotions that you really don't need to be carrying around with you all day. It takes off a burden. The words don't need to makes sense; let it flow and don't force anything. In fact, don't limit yourself to words: if you're compelled to doodle instead, go right on ahead and do that. 

Shift that thought; choose a positive spiN

A lot of the work for our own mental and physical health usually happens in the small daily affairs that make up our lives. What we consume for our bodies and what we're exposing our mind to e.g. how we talk to ourselves, when there isn't anyone around. These are seemingly trivial aspects, but are important when it comes to a cultivating a positive mindset.

We're all human and many a time, our mind gets the better of us. A negative thought gets planted, and before we know it, we find ourselves in a negative downward spiral that we feel we are powerless to change. Obviously, it'll be easier said than done, but Anji Hallewell, Transformational Coach & Trainer, shares about a  good place to start:

"When things pull you down (and they will!) you need to raise your own spirits by connecting to something more powerful, like courage. Anchor a past experience into your mind where you felt strong and ready to take on the world. And when you feel in the opposite state, use it to re-connect with that moment. Connect to it vividly and embody the emotion, for the same positive energy that filled you then will fill you now. It’s all there inside you, you just need to find it," she explains.

Planning and committing to a self-care ritual

The idea of self-care need not be all about heading to lush spas and fancy resorts (though that is certainly not frowned upon). Finding a daily self-care ritual is key in allowing and holding space for ourselves. We play multiple roles in our lives and usually tend to neglect ourselves. This is precisely why we need 'non-negotiable me time' - your very own self-care ritual.

There are just so many ways to get started: long walks before bedtime, meditation while you commute to work, or even positive affirmation/ visualisations before you start your day. Find that thing that brings you joy and centredness daily. Honour and guard that sacred space. You owe it to yourself.

Rally around support: your loved one

PAUSE Founder, Ferina, who battles with panic attacks, shared that whenever she has said attacks, her mind goes into a downward spiral after. She gets to state where she feels that she is 'not enough'. Thoughts like, 'why couldn't I manage the panic effectively?' etc. start running through her mind.

Having friends and loved ones understand her condition and what to do to help her feel calmer during that moment, helps tremendously. And while it sounds logical, it really is rare because it can only be done when you have open, non-judgmental conversation about what are your triggers, traumas and fears so that your support system can help you in the best way they can.

If you suffer from panic attacks too, remember that being judged by people around you is something you need to be okay with - most people cannot help themselves. Just take it in your stride and take one thing at a time, one day at a time.

Know your poison i.e. what feels numb/alive

All of us have our individual ways of being able to thrive and cope. While some look at positive activities like nature walks, journal-ing etc, some find escapism or numbing of the pain via other means - excessive isolation on Netflix and even too much office drinks post-work, could be signs of escapism and isolation tendencies.

To avoid this, find out what lights you up and what also brings you down to a dark and grey place. This act of becoming more aware marks the beginning of how you can shift and understand your own self-patterns. It means that you're well prepared to better pace or manage your physical, emotional and mental well-being. Bhali Gill, psychologist and coach shared that looking at other ways to cope with stress, such as pro-active behaviour and cognitions are better at dealing with stress. This includes thinking about the situation from a positive light to a positive relation to it (e.g. stress), you can say to yourself "the stress i am experiencing is energising me". 

But the first step is to really be aware - practising some mindfulness about what is triggering the stress (e.g. is it a perfectionist mindset or viewing things in the negative light) and also becoming aware of the sensations in our body. More often than not when we are stressed we use distractions and technology has become a huge distraction which actually causes more stress than peace and happiness.
— Bhali Gill, Organisational Psychologist, Coach and Trainer

The bottom line: wellness should not only encompass topics around food, nutrition, and physical exercise, but also the commonly overlooked area of mental well-being.

It is our own responsibility and discipline to be mindful of what's going in our minds and how we can keep it healthy. This starts with the daily work in coping with the stress that we face, the negative self-talk that we do, and more. It also allows us to consider how can we be more compassionate, non-judgmental and also remove the conversation stigma of mental health by avoiding the use of  words like "crazy", "nutjob" etc. to those who are facing a mental illness.

All in all, if you notice yourself feeling like you're going through a mental burnout or need help, don't be afraid to reach out to the kind folks at Samaritans for Singapore 1800 221 4444, if you're based here. There are also online counseling platforms available, like BetterHelp. If you know you need a more hands-on approach, don't be afraid to seek out a licensed mental health professional in your city.

Remember: you're worth the effort and like anyone else, you're worthy of receiving care, love and assistance where required.