Do · Feel · Think

Think Carefully before Considering Orthodontics

In one of the world’s most famous assassination cases, John F Kennedy, the US President was shot in his head on 22 November 1963 while he was riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Next to him, was his wife, Jacqueline, who had to witness the horror. Many of you would have heard about this famous piece of history. But not many of you would have known that President Kennedy’s death may have been avoidable, had he not been wearing a back brace, which he needed because of his poor back condition. Multiple shots came at the car, and those who were around ducked instinctively during the first few shots, except President Kennedy, who could not bend his back because of the brace, allowing him to sustain the fatal shot to the back of his head.

This story left such a big impact on me. Because the back brace, what was supposed to give him support and mobility, restricted his natural movement and at a time of his greatest need, failed to support him, and instead left him a sitting duck in the face of danger. I could not shake this story away from my mind. And it reminded me of something I went through myself.

In my journey towards seeking health, I started going for something called Rolfing, which is a type of bodywork, also known as Structural Integration, which helps your body find balance and work better with gravity. Through the palpation of my therapist, he could feel where the tightness in my body lay. Each person has a unique muscular or fascial pattern, owing the the strains and habits developed in the course of life. For example, someone who has a broken rib, may start walking in a lopsided way and overtime, the scar tissue and the muscular habit of walking in that lopsided way may remain, even if the ribs have fully healed, thus the person’s posture forever hints of the trauma that was once sustained. This can also be seen emotionally. Someone who is in perpetual distress from work or life, and always in a hunched and tense position with shoulder lifted up and head stretched forward, will over time, have this pattern reinforced and it becomes part of the person’s way of being and it shows in the person’s body and structure. As each of us experiences life differently, obtain different physical traumas, reinforce different emotional patterns, and allow ourselves to heal to different extents, every body is different and unique. These, a bodyworker, can easily feel, see and know, from just observing and sensing a person. The bodyworker, hence, has a way of knowing you from your body, even though you may not say very much.

So for me, my Rolfer, Hee Tan, noticed that muscles in my jaw and mouth and one side of my head were very tight. And he asked, if I ever wore braces. I was shocked that he even asked. And I told him that I did for a year when I was 12. And he said that many of his clients who wore braces, have similar tensions in the skull. Though this was a passing remark, I could not help but keep thinking about it. Because around the same time, I started becoming interested in craniofacial disorders and learned of issues that arise from poor function of the jaw muscles and tongue. And in my community, many have pointed out that orthodontics or the wearing of braces or clear aligners, while having straightened their teeth, had also at the same time caused their their faces to age prematurely and become elongated, led to a forward head posture and scoliosis (when some bones cannot move freely, other bones will shift to compensate for the loss of movement). The less lucky ones also develop the Temporal Mandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMD), which is also known as the suicide disease, because of how painful it is.

So what is the possible link between braces, the face, and jaw joint issues? It lies in the movement and breathing of the skull. Your skull looks like just one big thick bone, but it in fact consists of 22 bones that are connected by special joints called sutures (Figure 1). The flexibility of the skull is what allowed a baby’s head to go through the mother’s birth canal at birth. Some of these sutures fuse as you age, but not all and fully, because your skull performs a function of circulating the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and the spinal cord. To circulate the fluid, the skull bones perform a pumping motion, allowable by the sutures, which are spaces that are “chock-full of arteries, veins, nerves, nerve receptors, elastic and collagen fibres” and are “designed to move”. This breathing takes place all the time, rhythmically, just like the pulsing of your heart or the breathing movement of your chest, but it is less perceptible because you need to be quite still and meditative to be able to observe it in yourself (Figure 2).

Figure 1. The skull is made up of 22 bones, including the maxilla and mandible which holds our teeth.
Figure 2. This video clip shows the pumping of the cerebrospinal fluid to circulate it around our brain and and spinal cord.

The two palatine bones of the maxilla where all the upper teeth are located on are part of this skull breathing system. So what happens when you wear a brace, whatever type it is, is that it restricts the normal movement of the skull, leading to restrictions, scar tissues and poor patterns developing from the unnatural binding of the bones. Perhaps a poor example would be the traditional foot binding ritual of the Chinese. So the bones want to grow and develop in a certain way, but having a bind or a brace, restricts that natural development, resulting in distorted development. Because it cannot move in the way it wants to move, strain patterns develop, and tensions accumulate.

Quite like the case of the brace on the President’s spine that restricted his natural instinct and created a forced posture, so orthodontics does the same. The goal of orthodontics is to straighten teeth but at the expense of natural function and development. Did you know that after braces are removed, for life, the person has to wear something called the retainers to keep the teeth in the new position, or else, the teeth will once again, move back into their crooked positions? This means that the bones naturally want to move and find a position of equilibrium, and wearing braces only restricts and hinders this, they do not genuinely help your jaws and teeth find the most comfortable and healthy position to be in. As you can imagine, over time, strain patterns can develop from restricting this natural movement.

Is there a better way to correct problems with teeth and bite, other than orthodontics? This is an area I have been spending my time studying and hopefully, in time, I can share more with you. Meanwhile, I want to caution people who are thinking of wearing braces merely for an aesthetic effect, that there may be consequences that you may not even link to the wearing of braces in the first place. So think twice. Putting a brace on what is meant to move freely is generally not a good idea.

But if you really do need braces, choose a dentist who takes the craniosacral system into account into his or her methods. Find a dentist who integrates an understanding of whole-body mechanics and craniosacral therapy into his practice, one who first makes sure you do not have any imbalances in your jaw or who can first address it with a splint, before beginning treatment, such that the teeth and jaws are shaped towards your body’s ideal (Langly-Smith, 2020). “Is your bite quite right?” is a book I highly recommend to understand this area of study better. You need to remember that you are not just treating an isolated part of your body when you are correcting your teeth, but your whole body is connected, and pulling your jaws inwards and shifting the head off balance, will have systemic effects.

The only dentists I know who take a systemic approach to correcting teeth alignment issues now is Dr. Granville Langly-Smith, who has already unfortunately passed on, and Dr Jinhaeng Lee, who combine the palpatory skills of a cranio-osteopath and craniosacral therapist with the craftmanship of making splints and braces to return your bite and body into a more ideal position and function, hence enhancing your health and potentially correcting other issues that originated with issues related to the temporal-mandibular joints and bite.

Bibliography

Langly-Smith, G. (2020). Is your bite quite right? Inspiring stories of people regaining their smile and their health. UK: Langly-Smith Lecturing and Learning Ltd.

Pait, T. G., & Dowdy, J. T. (2017). John F. Kennedy’s back: chronic pain, failed surgeries, and the story of its effects on his life and death, Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine SPI, 27(3), 247-255. Retrieved Oct 16, 2021, from https://thejns.org/spine/view/journals/j-neurosurg-spine/27/3/article-p247.xml

Feel · Think

Dealing with Expectations and Being Too Hard on Myself

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Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

S: I’m not handling things as well as I wish to.

S: I’ve been hard on myself. Demanding and with many expectations. 😦

I: I wonder how are your expectations for yourself too?

I: Is it useful to write down all these expectations and see whether they’re realistic? Sometimes when they play around in our heads it’s more overwhelming and fuzzy.

Expectations are a collection of beliefs we impose on ourselves based on messaging we received growing up that delineated what was good or bad, right or wrong, or true or false. These messaging that we received initially in their original form had a context, but they become expectations when we take them out of their original meanings and continue to impose them on ourselves in changing circumstances.

For example, I expect excellence from myself. I remembered attending a church camp when I was 17 years old, called “The Excellent Church” that extolled the virtues of giving 110% in all that you do. Besides that, I was often praised when I produced a stellar piece of work. So in those original contexts, the idea of excellence may have “fitted” the situation. Yes, the theme of the camp was excellence, so they rightly emphasized its importance, and yes, sometimes, I produced terrific pieces of work and get praised for them.

But it becomes an expectation when thereafter, in whatever I do, I continue to want myself to give 110% and produce works of perfection, regardless. Because the messaging was taken out of context, it possibly did not fit new situations and, because of that, became “unrealistic” or no longer matching to their new reality. For example, when I have a lot of work to do and/or have no interest in that work and/or am not in the best of conditions, and yet I still expect myself to give 110% in all that I do.

Let me give another example of the societal expectation of a successful life. There is a messaging we receive as we grow up that by certain ages we should have hit certain milestones, such as finding our financial independence from our parents by the time we graduate from college or having a stable income and progression in our career by the time we are 30, or having a family by the time we are 40, or retiring happily by the time we are 60 or 70. We had collected these messaging in their specificities – we know of individuals who attained these ‘targets.’ However, they become expectations when we do not consider our own unique situations and still impose these targets on ourselves.

How do we identify our expectations? We will know them by how we feel when we fall short of them. We will also know them when we compare ourselves to others who supposedly have met these standards. For example, when I was learning a new activity like freediving, my course mates easily achieved a depth of 12 m on their first day of trying. Whereas I struggled to get to that depth, and I feel bad about myself. In this instance, I was comparing myself to someone else’s unique and contextualised performance and applying it out of context to my own situation. And because I do not meet up to their standard, I feel let down by myself.

If expectations are indeed generalized and out-of-context impositions we have on ourselves based on what we were told by others or what we observed of others, they should be questioned and deconstructed. This will help us see whether they are unrealistic or unreasonable for our unique situations. This is particularly important if these expectations cause us to feel bad about ourselves, such as feeling we are never enough for constantly not meeting the mark.

Let’s return to my former examples. If I am afraid of water, not a sporty person, and a slower learner, it is unrealistic (and unfair) for me to expect myself to perform as well as someone who is more aquatically-inclined. The more fitting and realistic ‘expectation’ is that I would take a longer time than most people to learn how to freedive. In my case, it makes little sense at all to compare myself to my stronger course mates, and it makes no sense at all to beat myself up over not achieving the same targets as they did on that first day.

And let’s use the other example as well. If someone has many interests and potential careers and wants to try many different things, or if someone has a disability or health condition; it is unreasonable to expect this person to hit the same milestones as someone who is healthy, single-minded in his interest and career and works hard solely towards one endpoint. It makes little sense to compare oneself with another who has a completely different life situation from you and feel bad over it because that expectation does not consider your unique specifics.

How then do you identify your expectations and check their reasonableness and consider if you need to adjust them to make them realistic to your specific situation?

You write them down. 🙂

It may begin with a constant disappointment you feel within yourself when you are trying to do something. You will notice the joy isn’t there, and you are not at your most creative. Instead, you are worried or concerned about whether you are meeting someone’s or an imagined standard of performance. There will be a pattern. If you observe your emotions, you will see them repeatedly triggered by certain things you do and do not do. Rather than being fully present in the moment, you are thinking about where you stand compared to where you wish to be at.

Some people intentionally impose these expectations on themselves out of fear they would trail behind. They feel that high standards motivate themselves towards better versions of themselves. They don’t see a need to make them more realistic, they want to be driven by them. However, making yourself constantly feel inadequate is not a healthy emotional or mental state to be in. And continually pushing yourself “to be someone you are not” or “to be somewhere you are not yet ready for” is not the healthiest way to become a better person.

You grow best when you meet yourself where you are at, considering your unique characteristics and conditions and then giving prods that are just enough and just right for yourself. Instead of using an arbitrary standard that others set for you or that your mental state created from the collection of your memories of what you think others have achieved, it it better to use yourself instead of expectations as the starting point. We give precedence to where we are at bodily, mentally, and emotionally.

Examining our expectations and adjusting them to fit ourselves, frees us to live according to our own terms. Instead of being controlled by unseen forces that dictate who we should be and how we should do things.

The way to examine your expectations is to write them down. I did this exercise when I was on Utila Island, a backpacker’s paradise, when I was feeling unhappy and trying to figure out why.

Let me share a simple analysis of one of my expectations. I had the expectation that I should remember the names of people I have met. I usually take some effort to do this because I know it can make someone feel special.

But let me check right now, how realistic this expectation is when:

  1. I am not good at recognizing faces/appearances.
  2. I meet so many people every day (This was pre-Covid-19 days.).
  3. Some encounters are fleeting and not as intense or strong as others, many are just smiling at someone who passes by.
  4. It is not realistic to remember every face/encounter, when I have a limited attention span and memory.
  5. I can’t possibly give 100% to everyone I meet (I am not always at my best and sometimes I’m tired to socialise.)
  6. It is not rude to honestly ask someone to remind me, “How did we meet?” Because I may not remember the person’s face or name, but I usually remember the nature of the encounter – like where we met and what we were doing then.
  7. People may more easily remember me because I stood out as an Asian among a more Caucasian/Caribbean crowd.

My adjusted expectation: I meet many people every day. Some connections are stronger than others. It is okay to connect differently and with differing depths with different people. I cannot and will not be everyone’s best friend.

Let me give another example of an expectation I dissected. I was learning how to be a freediving instructor. I had this expectation that I should already be able to function as a freediving instructor in teaching and performance while training to be one.

How reasonable was this when:

  1. I have ‘never’ done it before and am new to it.
  2. I already know that certain things I am expected to do as an instructor are at the moment still difficult for me, such as opening my eyes and diving in tandem with another person.
  3. My CO2 tolerance is not my strength, and contractions and feelings of discomfort are easily felt.
  4. I have ‘stage fright’ or ‘performance anxiety’ and tend to care a lot about how others think of me.
  5. I am an instructor-in-training and learning the ropes.
  6. The many things the Apnea Total school does are new to me, such as exhale diving. (So I am also learning a new set of knowledge and skills.)
  7. It takes time to grow into a new role and the body to strengthen for the job.
  8. I was also trying to train for depth myself (conflict of goals and outcomes.).

So I adjusted my expectations: I am an instructor-in-training. I am here to learn what it takes to be an instructor and to pick up the required knowledge and skills. I will not be immediately good. We each have our strengths and weaknesses as instructors.

What happened after I put my expectations down on paper and examined how realistic they were was that I became more relaxed and clear-headed as to what I needed to do to meet my goals. I realised I did not need to feel bad or intentionally try so hard to remember names of people. I should also give myself more time to learn the ropes of being an instructor. For someone else, it may take 2 weeks to 1 month, but for me, I am ready to give myself 3 months or even more.

After these realizations, I could address the situations objectively without anxiety. I no longer felt that I have fallen short, but instead, I asked how I could change the conditions to help myself – the way I am right now- feel better? Sometimes it involved me changing the way I think about something. At other times, it required me to re-adjusting my goals and expectations.

Examining my expectations made me more compassionate towards myself and a better problem solver. It stopped me from berating myself too easily and too quickly, for little reason, other than I did not meet up to my (unrealistic) expectations of myself. It gave me the clarity of mind and steadiness of heart to decide whether I should adjust my expectations, my goals and/or my approaches towards my goals. It also lessens the emotional tension as it no longer felt like my fault that I was not meeting up to these expectations.

I learned to examine the hidden expectations I have on myself and make them explicit so that I can personalise them to suit my unique personality, situation, and needs.

Instead of being a victim of vague internal standards that had been formed unintentionally, I can choose for myself which set of expectations I want to live by.

– – –

This post is inspired and made possible by I, who asked me to write down my expectations to check if they were realistic. 🙂 Thank you I for always being my cheerleader with matters related to my mental and emotional health.

Feel · Think

Staying Calm in the Midst of the Pandemic

I did not know I was susceptible to panic buying just like any other.

After all, few of us (lucky as we are) might have faced a crisis of this scale before. Naturally, behaviors we did not know we might have, might surface.

The day when my neighbor came to my door and showed me a message that said the last shipment of goods had arrived in the supermarket, I shuddered in fear.

We stay on a small (and lovely) island called Utila in Honduras. If the cargo boats cannot get to us, we are doomed. (But also on a small island, misinformation gets around faster than facts do. The truth was that the cargo ships continued to come to the island, and there was no food shortage at all.)

I quickly took my backpack and rushed to my bicycle and cycled to the supermarket.

In my panic, speeding along a bumpy path, my mind far away, I scraped my toe against a post. I was so distraught, and I felt so much pain that I cried.

It was at that moment that I realized something was not right. My actions were overly impulsive, and I was not handling my emotions very well.

I stopped, cycled back home to treat my wound, and re-evaluated the situation.

A preoccupied mind can cause us mistakes.

Anxiety or a mind preoccupied with thoughts associated with negative potentialities and possibilities can make us clumsy and irrational. Our minds are not in the present. Instead, we are worried about something amorphous and not within our grasp. We may feel a continual sense of dis-ease, like an anxious current running through our veins.

Panic causes people to go into a fight or flight mode, and in this state we may neglect to take care of ourselves and others.

Our brains switch to survival-mode thinking, where rationality switches off, and our animal-like instincts switch on. This happens whenever we try to protect ourselves in a dangerous situation. This causes us to forget that when we bulk buy more than we need, it denies others from getting what they immediately need.

So during this time, it’s important to not go with our instincts but to take deep breaths and calm ourselves down, and allow our minds to guide our actions.

And a tip for you. Counter-intuitively, rather than mass buying items that everybody needs, why not give yourself a treat?

Yes, poor you, who is suddenly thrown into this unexpected situation. I think you need a treat. Yes, get yourself that tub of ice-cream that can calm your nerves in any stressful situation. Yes, perhaps we can do exactly the opposite of what our survival instincts tell us to do.

I picked up a pack of chives and mint and some hemp seeds – non-essential items – and made my way home.

Now, let me share what helped me regain my composure:

1. Knowing I was not alone.

Though I was in a foreign country, I had friends. If I did run out of food, I have many people who would help me out in that aspect. Having different people to share my many worries with also helped put them into perspective and gave me ideas about how to resolve my problems.

2. Reminding myself that I was capable of getting myself out of deep shit.  

Because we are each facing this situation for the first time, we may panic because we are unsure whether we can actually make it out of the situation. I remind myself that I am intelligent and capable of resolving any problems I face.

Yes, I am capable of finding a way back to my home country, though it is far away, and flight cancellations are the norm. Yes, I am capable of meeting my basic needs and happiness, even in a time like this. (If I have to, I can plant my own vegetables! I should have enough fats to last me while the plants grow. I will not die of starvation!)

Trust in your lived experiences, your intelligence, and/or your resourcefulness. You can handle any novel situations. Yes, including this Covid-19 Crisis!

3. Breathing and staying calm regardless. 

How to catch yourself in that moment of panic and not to go along with it?

One way to regain composure is to focus on taking a deep and slow breath in and a deep and slow breath out. By focusing your attention on your breath, instead of following the rapid-fire train of thoughts in your mind, you ground yourself in the present moment and stop yourself from being carried away.

This puts you in better stead to handle any situations that come your way. When you are calm, you have access to your judgment, your intelligence, and your resourcefulness. In contrast, in panic mode, your raw, spontaneous, and wild emotions can lead you astray.

Feel · Think

Anxiety at Work

young depressed and desperate Asian Korean business woman crying alone sitting on street staircase suffering stress and depression crisis being victim of mobbing or fired losing her job

How I managed to have a career despite my anxiety disorder?

I have difficulty speaking to strangers ‘under pressure’. I stutter and stammer and find it difficult to form a full sentence, what more leave a good impression. Interviews are difficult situations for me.

I got a job not because I impressed at the interview but because my first boss for some strange reasons felt an affinity to me. It’s one of those times I feel grateful that life is unfair.

And then I got my second job because I did not have to go through an interview for it. Someone saw the work that I did and liked it and based on that employed me.

People with anxiety disorders may need to find work through different routes. The traditional interview format may still be a challenge, even with much practice. And it takes a perceptive and skillful interviewer to see through a nervous interviewee and set him or her at ease.

Can someone with an anxiety disorder still produce high quality work?

Anxiety is worst when things are unknown and we anxious ones make a lot of plans to try to reduce the uncertainties. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to overachieve. Because I over-plan and over-strategize, I become good at what I do. Fear of giving a presentation at an international conference, means months before, I have already started preparing for it, even writing a full publishable manuscript just in time for the conference to ensure I knew my material and was prepared beyond what was expected of me.

Even so, it did not reduce my fear of public speaking or attending a function that involved many people. One of my greatest fears back then was having to shake hands as a form of greeting with others. Because when I am nervous, I have sweaty palms. I did not want others to know I was nervous and judge me for that.

This was actually one of the reasons why I finally sought professional help. Even though I had other issues affecting me, I wanted practical help to continue establishing my career. I had what some people would call “high functioning” anxiety. My career was flying even though I may have been in a constant state of dis-ease.

Why seek help?

It legitimised my experience and struggles. For me, having a professional for the first time in my life recognise that I have an anxiety disorder, which had affected me since I was a child and was not of a trivial sort, gave me a sense of relief. I spent many years struggling through life wondering why does it seem a little harder for me and being unsure whether I was just incapable of coping with life or seriously sick. And I finally got an answer. I was living my life with additional psychological burden that most people did not carry with them. I was not merely a worrywort, I had a real condition that caused me to be fatigued even before lunch time each day.

Rather than feeling defeated by this diagnosis, it gave me courage to deal with it, now knowing that it was a problem that hugely affected my daily life. Before this diagnosis, I lived in that unsure zone that maybe I was just maladapted or incompetent. But now I know I just needed a bit more help and time to work things out. Things that are common sense and easy for many people, such as attending a wedding or asking for help or even learning to drive, required a lot more energy and courage from me.

Accepting this, I learned to be less harsh on myself and more compassionate, the way you would be more gentle with a frightened kitten. And from my therapist, I learned social skills and new ways of coping with my condition. With regards to my behaviours and expectations, I also learned what was ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ and what was not. After being cooped within my own demanding world for so long, I lived by a set of standards that were unreasonable and I did not even know it until my therapist gave me a point of reference.

Therapy is indeed a form of self-improvement.

How did I cope, and even thrive, with this at the workplace?

I managed my fatigue through working from home. Sometimes it saved me the worry caused by other matters unrelated to work but owing to interacting with people. And most of all, working from home gave me control over my time and energy. If I was tired, I took a nap or went for a swim, and then I could work again. There were days I took multiple naps, but I still got the work done. But if I had to be in the office the whole day, this would not have been an option.

Certain aspects of my job such as going for meetings or interviews depleted my energies. But other aspects, such as reading and writing energised me. I learned that I needed more rest before and after energy-depleting work. But I could devote much time to the study of academic texts without the same concerns.

Because of this, I could produce high quality work and despite my weaknesses, I was  considered a good worker. I learned to be gracious with the things I did not do so well in and whole-hearted with the things I did do very well in.

My work environment was also conducive for me. I had a supportive and understanding boss. And I had the best colleagues who were kind and helpful, unselfishly giving me of themselves and information that reduced the effort and time needed to figure things out. Many have vetted through messages and emails before I sent them because I was so afraid of making mistakes.

Why be honest about your condition?

When I started seeing a therapist, it was initially difficult for me to tell others about my condition. Though the condition has always been there, somehow seeing a professional, made my problem seem more real than it was before. However, I wish to be understood and accepted for who I was. I wanted to give people an additional perspective when they saw me behaving awkwardly. I also hoped that if one day, this situation should befall any of my friends, they would have at least known one other person who has been through it and still goes through it, and know that they are not alone.

Do · Feel · Think

Writing as Therapy

Writing is therapy to me. Writing helps me process my emotions and thoughts. When I feel overwhelmed, distressed or can make little sense of what I am going through, writing has been a way of clarifying my emotions and thoughts.

It helps me get in touch with what I really am feeling and thinking. And so often in the act of writing, I have these “bingo” moments where I suddenly understand why I feel the way I do or understand what is important to me.

I think most of us may have experienced the relief of sharing our burdens with a trusted friend, someone who listened to us without judgment and with compassion, and who reassures us that what we are thinking and feeling are valid and normal.

Or we may recall the joy of owning a diary or journal, a secret space for us to be truly ourselves, a secret joy some of us had when we were little.

Sometimes it’s about expressing ourselves honestly, which some people do on social media. Merely the act of saying out loud exactly what we think or feel and posting it, makes us feel better. This act of externalizing what is within us validates our emotions.

So I often write when I am in emotional turmoil – when I need help to make sense of how I feel. I write mainly for myself. I write by typing out whatever comes to my mind with brutal honesty. It is cathartic. And I often feel better after doing it. Often times, it makes me cry. No one need ever read it, it is just for me.

It is like having a pen pal who loves you, but that pen pal is yourself.

I write to process difficult experiences and decisions. Writing is a way for me into my heart and soul. When I write something that resonates with me, I know I have to pay attention to it.

But to get there, sometimes I have to begin by writing things exactly as they are so I will first relate to my diary what has happened and describe how I feel for example. So I put down the most obvious things first to allow space and room for the more hidden but true things to emerge.

Another way to use writing as therapy is to write to someone whom you cannot speak honestly to for whatever reasons. It is that email you never send out. It is written to that person who causes you pain and distress. Or perhaps to that person who is already dead or who has long moved on before you have.

Writing to him or her will help you process how you feel about that relationship. It will help you say things you really really mean inside your heart but perhaps because of circumstances, cannot say to the person.

This kind of writing can be extremely healing if you’re writing to someone who means a lot to you, but perhaps has also hurt you deeply.

If you’re going through a hard time and need a little bit of help processing your thoughts and emotions, why not give writing about it a try?

How it can work is that the next time you don’t feel so good inside, add to your armor of coping, writing out you feel about it. You can even stop whatever you are doing (which I often do) to quickly privately blog about it, and feel immediate relief. So you can continue on with your day without that amorphous burden weighing on you. You leave your burden in prose to be processed at another time when you’re more ready for it.

By being a means to carry our thoughts and emotions and to clarify them, the computer, typewriter, or pen and paper can help our limited tormented minds do what they cannot do on their own.

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Feel · Freedive · Think

Containing Panic – Letting it Remain in the Minute it Arises

Three days ago, I was in my car and late for an appointment, rushing and following the GPS instructions. It told me to make a U turn which I blindly did and it took me in the wrong direction. At this point, I felt a great sense of frustration and anxiety, upset with myself that I could have made that mistake and anxious that I was going to take even longer to reach my destination.

To calm myself down, I started to breathe deeply. I took deep breaths in and long slow controlled breaths out to “contain the panic”. I needed to stop it at that moment, rather than to allow the panic to fester and escalate, and for one small mistake to lead to more mistakes. Taking those deep breaths bought me time to calm down and decide how I wanted the next moment to be. So I recovered and reasoned, if I had to be late, I would be late. And it’s better late than risky and reckless driving.

Freediving taught me that panic can be contained wherever and whenever is arises. You need not follow panic down the fight or flight spiral. But you can stop, recognize and accept it, see it reduce in its strength, and then decide how to proceed from that moment on. I learned this during my first deep descent into Singapore waters beyond 20 meters. As I went deeper and deeper with my eyes closed, there came a point where it was suddenly pitch black and I panicked and returned to the surface.

At the surface, my coaches, Sam and Chris, told me that on my next dive, when I experience that panic with the darkness, not to react and return, but to stop at that point and allow myself to accept the darkness and to relax into that space and time. And then watch my emotions change, as they often do. This way, I remain in control. I can better assess my situation and to decide my move, whether to calmly proceed or return, without panic.

Stop
Grab the line and stop when you need to and don’t follow panic’s lead.

This object lesson learned in one freediving session can be applied to other strong forms of emotional surges that we experience in life. Intense emotions have a tendency to overwhelm, to spill over, into every thought that you have, every fibre of your body, and into subsequent moments long after the initial trigger has past. It causes us to react out of fear rather than reason.

If we recognize that we have the ability to stop, recognize, calm and soothes ourselves and then decide to think and behave differently from what those initial emotions ask of us, we can retain a lot more control over our lives. In short, to accept and contain them, rather than follow their lead.

Panic may indeed be what we need in certain situations that are life threatening and we need that reaction to protect and preserve ourselves. However, for most people and for most of the time, panic is a hindrance rather than a help, causing us to lose ourselves in situations where we most need to be calm, collected, and in control.

Time can sometimes seem to be continuous with no beginning and no end, but it is also made up of unique moments that are distinct and separate from one another. And we can contain unpleasant moments and emotions to one moment and have a completely different moment the next!

Credits: Freediver photograph by Kohei Ueno and featured image by Stefano Pollio.
Do · Feel · Freedive · Think

Relaxation and Freediving

What is the draw of freediving? I’ve shared how it gave me greater bodily awareness and taught me about staying in the present. Today, I want to share how it teaches me relaxation. Earlier on in my freediving journey, one of my instructors, Oli Christen, told me, “Each dive is an extension of your relaxation.” So what happens before a dive is that we are to be fully relaxed at the surface at the buoy as we do our “breathe up” or mental and physical preparation, and then what happens subsequently – our entry into the water, making our way down and then back up again, and recovery – are an extension of that same relaxation we experience at the surface of the water.

This sentence that each dive is an extension of my relaxation has been so impactful to me that I have since repeated it before each dive, together with what Oli also told me then, “Never sacrifice relaxation for speed” or for that matter anything at all that I may want to achieve underwater, including buddying and rescuing which I just learnt from my other coach, Patrick Swart. As without this relaxation, we can hardly perform any energy demanding task. In this way, relaxation has been so important for me in my freediving journey. It is probably one of the things I like best about this activity, that it teaches me how to relax and gives me that space to do so. For that one minute or so that I am holding my breath, I am to be as relax as I can possibly be. And it is this relaxation that I wish to extend to all of my life.

I wonder for how many of us life is a constant state of tension that is only interrupted periodically by moments of relaxation? Freediving teaches me that perhaps life is better lived the other way round – where relaxation is the default state to be only periodically interrupted by moments of tension where I need an alert state to problem solve. During freediving, I realized I need my relax mode to be able to perform certain tasks, such as equalizing my ears. When I am tense, I don’t have the mental calm to direct my body to override certain poor habits or to perform certain intricate movements like the gentle pinching of the nose and lifting of the tongue or streamlining of my body. Because my mind is occupied with other concerns.

Isn’t this similar to life? When you are in a state of panic or you sense danger, it is difficult to make reasonable and well-thought out decisions that takes into consideration other things that are also important to you. Anxiety wants you to make a decision that can immediately alleviate your misery, but the outcome of this decision may not be that which you truly want. You may make a flight or fight decision that will quickly resolve the tension within you, but does nothing else, doesn’t help you achieve your goals or isn’t aligned with your values and who you are. Freediving teaches me to do the opposite, to calmly attempt what I want to do, and when I meet with situations that test me along the way, to calmly assess each challenge and obstacle objectively to resolve them, and if not to remember this information to help me with my next dive.

And this is how freediving teaches me about life, challenging me to rethink the way I am living my life. And suggesting to me the possibility of living a completely different kind of life, one that stems from being at ease, having fun, taking it easy, being calm and relaxed; rather than being too on the ball, flighty, anxious, and too ready to take excessive actions.

Maybe life can be lived with much more calm and enjoyment. 🙂

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Do · Feel · Freedive · Think

Staying in the Present with Freediving

I have mentioned how special freediving is to me. Let me share one important lesson I learned from my coach and it is not to anticipate what is to come but to stay focused on the present moment. I cross the swimming pool tile by tile, one fin-stroke at a time…

First, what is freediving? Freediving or apnea is a sports that involves the voluntary suspension of breath — so you hold your breath underwater. It is not scuba diving where you have tanks or diving where you jump from a platform and perform acrobatics before breaking into the water.

It is being relaxed, taking a deep, full breath, before ducking underwater and swimming across the pool, propelling yourself forward with your kicks, usually with the help of fins (but you can do it without too). And you don’t come up to breathe until you have or want to.

The first time I tried freediving at a Discover Freediving course (I don’t think I will forget the 7th of May 2017), I experienced the strangest of sensations, feeling myself moving in the water at such speed that it became surreal. I remember coming home with such an adrenaline rush that I kept replaying the experience in cold sweat. It got me hooked from the start.

Back to the lesson I had learned. We are always told not to look up and ahead to where we are headed to check how much more distance we are to cover, but to remain focused on the present moment. Don’t think about what is to come until you have arrived. This is not only good for streamlining but more importantly, it helps alleviate anxiety.

Your thoughts in apnea are so important – they tell the body what you can and cannot do. Freediving accentuates the mental and emotional states. So much can happen in a short span of a few minutes. You feel like time is expanded and suspended.

When you’re fully focused on that tile before your eyes, the movement of your legs in the water, the sensation of your body flowing through the water column; you don’t have time to worry whether you will make it or panic that you may not, and you can remain relaxed, something so essential for the state of apnea and your present enjoyment of the activity.

This is also an important life lesson. How much time do we spend worrying about and anticipating something of the future that might or might not happen; when that energy could be focused on completing each present task at hand?

Learning to stay in the present moment, to enjoy it, and not cross the bridge until I come to it are important lessons that freediving has taught me.

Feel · Think

Cognitive Distortions and Emotional Health

I just thought of sharing this with some of you. I came across the work of Dr. David Burns a few years ago. He made what is known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) popular with his amazing books. And he remains to date, one of my favourite authors. CBT sounds complicated but it is not, and what it basically proposes is that how you think affects how you feel and it is distorted thinking that make us depressed or anxious.

What is distorted thinking? It is thinking that is far from reality or exaggerated, and many times simply mean, unfair, and untrue. He teaches us to identify the following 10 cognitive distortions so we can correct them:

Types of Cognitive Distortions (Burns, 1999, pp. 32-43) 

  1. All-or-Nothing thinking

Seeing things in black-or-white categories and inability to see or accept shades of grey. For example, you might want an A for your examination, and anything less to you is a failure, even if it’s a B or C.

  1. Overgeneralization

Seeing negative events as a never-ending pattern of defeat. For example, you might fail at multiple job interviews and you think you will continue failing at all subsequent interviews.

  1. Mental Filter

Picking out a negative detail and dwell exclusively on it such that you don’t see any positive. For example, you left home angrily after having an argument with your family, and you allow that to affect negatively how other events of the day play out.

  1. Disqualifying the Positive

Rejecting positive experiences by insisting they do not count. For example, someone gives you a compliment and you reject it, thinking they do not know the real you.

  1. Jumping to Conclusions

Making negative interpretations without strong evidence supporting your conclusion.

a) Mind Reading

You conclude that someone is thinking a certain way when you cannot be sure of that. For example, someone did not acknowledge you when they walk past, and you think they are angry with you.

b) Fortune Telling

You anticipate that things will turn out badly. For example, you think you will fail an interview even before you go for it or you think you cannot do a set of exercises before you even try.

  1. Magnification and Minimization (Catastrophizing)

Exaggerating or shrinking the importance of things out of proportion. For example, I may have let my friend down in one instance and I think that is the end of my friendship, and how I am also minimizing our many years of friendship and the many other times I have been there for my friend.

  1. Emotional Reasoning

Agreeing with how you feel. For example, you may feel guilty and conclude that you have done something wrong or you feel overwhelmed and conclude that your problems cannot be solved.

  1. Should Statements

Motivating yourself in a pressurizing way with high expectations, leaving yourself little room for mistakes. For example, you may say I should not have been so self-centered, when in reality we cannot live up to such high standards all the time.

  1. Labeling and Mislabeling

Attaching a negative label to yourself or events. For example, you may label yourself (or someone else) as an “idiot” or “loser” after a series of let downs or you label a tricky situation as impossible to resolve.

  1. Personalization

Taking responsibility for what you are not personally responsible for. For example, your child makes some wrong decision in life, and you blame yourself for that.

So in his books, Dr. Burns teaches us to identify these cognitive distortions and to correct them with the more realistic thought, and watch how our feelings change. I wish I can introduce his work better, but since I can’t at the moment, I highly recommend his following books: The Feeling Good Handbook, Ten Days to Self-Esteem, Intimate Connections, and The Feeling Good Handbook, which I have personally read and kept as resources that I still refer to every now and then when I go through a tough patch.

It is just so helpful to be able to identify and check your own thoughts and make them less extreme, more balanced, and closer to reality. It not only makes you feel better, it is also a more truthful and true way to live your life. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, especially if you have spent most of your life thinking in a distorted fashion but I must say that if you put in the effort to become more rational in your thought-life, you will surely reap emotional rewards.

And yes, take heart that the brain has an amazing ability to unlearn and relearn. It might be a long journey and will take time, but be patient with yourself, it’s going to be worth it.

Reference

Burns, D. D. (1999) Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Harper

Think

Reclaiming your Calm through Self-hypnosis

Do you have possessions that you have kept with yourself because you had a special affinity to them? I have kept a second-hand book for 19 years now. It is probably the only book that remain in my rapidly and drastically changing book collection over so many years. And this book is called Creative Imagery by William Fezler.

creative imagery

I was easily anxious as a kid, and you could say, even now, and that book gave me so much hope that I could control how I was feeling through relaxation and visualization. There is a scene in the book called the Mountain Cabin scene. I had so vividly imagined it as a 12 year old child that that memory of pine trees in a log cabin is firmly etched onto my memory (even though there’s no such scene at all in Singapore!). Sometimes what I imagined is more real than anything I have experienced in reality.

The book had such a hold on me that periodically, I would think of it, and dig into my cabinet to search for it. Recently, I dug it out again. And to my surprise, the practice it was promoting was “hypnosis”.

Hypnosis conjures up images of people in a trance who have lost control of their wills (Think of the absolutely amazing movie Get Out). Having such a frightful perception of this practice, few people would even venture to read up more about it or consider it as a viable practice for improving their mental well-being. Yet, because of that early connection I had to Dr William Fezler, I was very open to it.

Hypnosis is “a state of increased concentration” which “enables you to focus with pinpoint specificity while eliminating all competing negative stimuli or “noise” from your consciousness. (Fezler, 1989, p. 4)” Hence, it is a practice that helps you “clear your mind and remove all negativity” (p. 4). In this state, positive and true messages that you suggest to yourself are more readily accepted because there is no other negative and distorted voice to counter them.

In this book, Fezler guides you to self-hypnotize yourself before having many many visual images that he recommends for different conditions. I have searched around for hypnosis audios because sometimes I can be lazy and just want to hear a voice guide me into it, and I have found James’s 3 Minute Hypnosis to be very helpful. It helps that he speaks with a really nice Northern English accent too!

3minutehypnosisWhat worked for me was the short length of the audios. Yes, 3 minutes is sufficient to help you relax. I had to teach two English classes last month, and Confident Public Speaking helped me through my performance anxiety. I listened to the audio prior to my practices and “performances”. This worked much better than doing Amy Cuddy’s power poses.

I also listen to some of his audios when I am ruminating on negative thoughts and need a complete break from them. It helps when you know there is a switch you can pull to help recompose yourself. There is something else that helps me with anxiety, in deliberately changing my physiology, and that is deep breathing, which I shall cover another day.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested to try more of James’s free hypnosis tapes, you can find and download them here. They are also available on iTunes, Podcasts, or you can also buy a set different from these free ones from his website. Personally, my favourite is the Confident Public Speaking one. Though, for many others, they like Hypnotic Sleep.

James is doing such good to the world by making them free!

References

Fezler, W. (1989) Creative Imagery: How to Visualize in all Five Senses. New York: A Fireside Book

BTW, I think Dr Fezler has passed away in 1995. I try very hard to find information about him but it yielded naught. Please let me know if you know anything about him!