Friday, April 15, 2022

How To Be Happy: Culture Filters How We Think About And Treat Depression And Anxiety


Tic Tac's happiness is a paper bag
Tic Tac's idea of happiness is a paper bag

Feeling dull and can’t get out of bed? Must be depression. Can’t sit still or stop talking? That’s anxiety. Ticking boxes makes it all seem so cut and dried, but did you know that culture influences how we experience mental health?

Mental health practitioners working in melting pot communities (like Malaysia!) talk among themselves about how different groups experience and treat mental health.


With the pandemic fuelling public interest, this is an excellent time to open up discussion. That way, we can all make more informed decisions.


I’m a counsellor and psychotherapist working online with private clients from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, the USA, and other countries. Since I opened my practice in 2016, I’ve worked with some 250 people over roughly 4500 hours.


Here are three insights from this work about depression and anxiety.


Losing your pleasure in food. When your friend tells you about a fantastic laksa stall and you’re normally a fan but are not champing at the bit to check it out, figure out why.


If just the thought of taking time out has you worried about work or chores, it may be a sign of stress, burnout, or anxiety.


Not having the energy to go, skipping meals because you’ve lost your appetite, or deciding for no reason that it probably isn’t that good anyway, can all be signs of low mood or depression.


At prayers or meditation, you focus on your faults. Reflection can be a powerful force for good mental health, but if you find you are skipping celebrating the little joys, and going to town with hypercritical self-analysis, you risk pushing yourself into a spiral of negativity.


Spiralling and catastrophising, imagining the worst possible outcomes in your imagination, are associated with anxiety and depression. This is why journaling, an excellent exercise for many, can backfire if you suffer from these issues.


A practical first step is to restrict yourself to prayers and meditation designed to uplift, while you figure out what’s going on.


You are constantly scolding or quarrelling. Irritation, annoyance, and anger are key emotions that give us insight into ourselves and our environment. Usually, we feel angry when we perceive injustice. If you’re queueing nicely and someone pushes in front, feeling irritation is perfectly healthy!


But constant anger is uncomfortable and a sign of trouble. As the body and mind work together, a simple first check is to make sure you are drinking enough water and eating properly. It’s amazing how ratty we can get on a hot day when we’ve skipped a cup of tea and a snack.


If it’s not that, consider that anger can also be a reaction to feeling powerless or hopeless. These feelings may arise from specific events in your life or be symptoms of depression and anxiety. Sometimes, it’s all of the above.


Therapy approaches are cultural too

In the world of mental health, medication is the province of psychiatrists, medical doctors who specialise in diagnosing and treating mental illness.


Everyone else, therapists, counsellors, and psychologists like me, are not medical doctors. We specialise in talk therapy. We cannot prescribe medicine or sell you supplements. (Anyone who tells you that supplements are part of talk therapy is scamming you.)


When you see a psychiatrist and take a pill, the medication works the same no matter if you’re a Buddhist from Miri or a Christian from Penang.


But with talk therapy, it’s useful to build approaches with culturally appropriate elements.


My number one tip is based on the fact that Malaysia favours group culture. Therefore, connecting with your support group is valuable.  Working out which friends can help you with what, while maintaining privacy, is practical and effective.


As for anxiety, I'm a huge fan of the traditional cup of ginger tea.


Studies show that ginger has medicinal properties thanks to gingerol, its main bioactive component. While the jury is out on how much gingerol soothes nausea and promotes mood stabilising hormones, it’s simple, cheap and, for many Malaysians, associated with feel-good memories.    

If you have medical conditions, check with your doctor first. But otherwise, drop a slice of fresh ginger into your next cuppa. Alternatively, a half teaspoon of plain powdered shop-bought spice will work just as well. 

Put your feet up, embrace the moment, and be happy.