From the perspective of an addiction counsellor in Singapore, addiction or substance use disorder, as it is now termed, usually looks like the guy or gal sitting next to you at work, on the MRT, in court or in the boardroom. Substance Use Disorder is a spectrum, so includes both the colleague who can’t get through the day without a quick drink, and the guy on the park bench drinking methyl alcohol. People struggling with this disorder might be introverts or extroverts, people pleasers or “don’t give a damn” managers. In other words, they may act and look just like you and me.
But what goes on behind our many masks might be very different indeed.
Restrictions are lifting, the workforce is returning traditional office spaces, travel is go. On the outside many would say we are emerging into a ‘new normal’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our minds are at ease. Having a human brain, particularly right now, is stressful.
Much like how the homes we’ve become so bound to in the past few years have grown more cluttered, our minds are filled with chaotic debris and discontent too. Recent research by YouGov found that six in 10 Singapore residents have suffered adverse effects to their mental health due to the pandemic, with those aged 35 – 44 most affected.
“Covid-19 has certainly impacted both our thoughts and our behaviours, and studies have shown that population mental health has declined significantly during this period,” confims Alexis Fosler, psychotherapist at Promises Healthcare. “These same studies indicate that we may have given more time to think about our anxieties and our worries such as employment, health and our lack of social connection. We’ve put less brain power into thinking about others and about our future plans – both of which are associated with better wellbeing.”
While we don’t experience seasonal changes in Singapore, the arrival of spring can serve as a natural point to take stock of our mental wellbeing and reconnect with the things that bring us purpose and joy. We know that positive outcomes are associated with physical decluttering. When we clean the messy spare room, give the kitchen a clear out or tidy the drawer that hasn’t closed properly since 2019, we experience lower levels of stress, greater productivity, better focus, higher self-esteem and increased mental health. Alexis believes that same positive effects can occur when you spring clean your brain.
“We know that our brains like order and are less likely to be distracted and overloaded in a clutter-free environment,” she says. “We live in two states: our external environment and our internal environment. Both can affect our overall wellness, so it’s equally important to live in an internal world that is not overwhelmed with noise and distraction.”
Creating a soothing internal landscape is easier said than done, but Alexis recommends achieving a calmer, clearer mind by “thinking about wellbeing as the house in which you live, which is supported by a number of important pillars”. Here are a few of her simple rules:
The first pillar to your house of wellbeing is exercise which improves mood and decreases feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. It also produces changes in parts of the brain that regulate stress and anxiety and boosts the production of endorphins, which are known to help produce positive feelings.
The second pillar is service to others. “The more I think about other people, the less I am concerned with myself, and the more I’m able to focus outwardly, and escape the natural whirlpools and eddies of my own mind,” Alexis says.
The third pillar is social connection. Research indicates that the number of social connections, and the type, quality and purpose of relationships, can affect brain function. So it seems that better social engagement is good for brain health (like we need another reason to love an ANZA Ladies Night!). There is also evidence that loneliness increases the risk of loss of thinking skills in older people.
The fourth pillar is learning or education. “At times in my life where I’ve felt stuck, picking up a new skill or a new degree has been a lifesaver – the rigour of studying hones our mental skills and keeps us engaged; it has a wider benefit of opening doors to new skills and relationships,” Alexis confirms.
The final and perhaps most significant pillar is meditation, something which many studies claim gives rise to mental focus and clarity. “I never really understood what this meant, but meditation completely changed my outlook,” admits Alexis. “Most people think about meditation as the absence of thought, but really, it’s the ability to observe your thoughts, thus allowing yourself to see where your mind takes you, and to press pause on negative thinking. If I’d known the power of meditation, I would have started many years ago!”
Having the ability to observe her thoughts, Alexis says she is much better able to detect negative thought patterns and allow herself to reframe situations she finds herself in. “The ability to monitor or control our thoughts allows for an internal – rather than external – locus of control, which is incredibly important in an era where there are so many things (a lingering pandemic, employment, war) that are beyond our control. She adds; “Once you realise that the power to change lies within the space between your ears, you can possess an unpolluted mind and the world can appear much more manageable.”
Promises Healthcare provides a comprehensive range of psychiatric, psychological & physical wellbeing services for children and adults.