As an expat living in Vietnam, or even simply as a human being who is facing life’s daily challenges, how do you know if you are mentally and emotionally healthy?
If you struggle to feel well somewhat consistently, you don’t necessarily need therapy to change the way you feel. Here are 3 key ways to manage and maintain your mental health. Nobody always gets it right every time, so if you find yourself struggling in one or more of these areas, and you want to improve, just do that one simple thing that people do to get better at something: practice.
You Have Response Flexibility
This is a psychological term that means how good are you at adapting and adjusting to things when they don’t go your way? As an expat in Asia, this might mean your new job or your new boss sucks, your relationship is on thin ice, or maybe the traffic or language barriers get a bit overwhelming. If you have only one way of responding to frustrating experiences, well, you are not very flexible in your responses. Your go-to reaction when frustrated or facing challenges may be limited to lashing out (anger), shutting down (social withdrawal), or passive-aggressive reactions (acting aggressively but in an indirect way that is less obvious than normal aggression).
However, if you are able to see the situation with a different perspective, which may involve practicing compassion for the person who is challenging you. (Remembering that they, just like you, are human, struggling with their own issues, and doing their best to be happy.) Or perhaps you have learned how to not take things so personally, so when someone says something that used to offend you, it’s much easier now to let it go, or even send them well wishes in hopes they can become more skillful with their difficulties. Finally, another strategy that lends itself to response flexibility is noticing your own story or belief about that event. If your first two jobs in a new country were unfair or a let-down, does that mean all jobs will be the same? If someone breaks your heart, does that prevent you from trusting again? Learning how to see each event and experience in its own right, having its own unique qualities, allows us to learn from it and move on in healthy ways, instead of generalizing that ‘everyone must be like this’ based on your past experiences.
In other words, you’ve got your expectations in check (realistic expectations means you expect to be disappointed sometimes, you know you will be let down on occasion, and you are prepared for things to not go your way)! When things do go wrong, you’ve got some tools in your tool-belt that you can use to respond mindfully instead of react habitually. Skillfully choosing your reaction is response flexibility!
You Prioritize Your Mental Health
I often remind my psychotherapy clients that there are three pillars or foundations of well-being: Sleep. Exercise. Diet. If you are neglecting one or more of these things, chances are you’re not feeling very good about yourself. I’ve had more than one client come in for a session and wonder what kind of psychological diagnosis might help them to make sense of why they are irritable, unable to focus, depressed, etc. Upon exploring further, it turns out they’re hardly sleeping, their diet consists of fast food, or exercise is a thing of the past. So, it makes perfect sense why you are feeling down if you’re not taking care of yourself in these three key areas. You know your body, and you know the minimum amount of sleep you need to feel well rested.
There are schedules, mindful practices and routines you can implement to help with this. Exercise doesn’t need to be the huge obstacle we sometimes make it out to be. Sometimes a simple walk in the neighborhood is sufficient. For me, I know I need to sweat hard doing cardio for at least 30-40 minutes a few times a week to feel relaxed, refreshed, clear-headed and healthy. I bet you know what you need as well. As for the diet, throw in some colors here and there and lay off the soda/sugar. As an expat, you may also need to work with the lifestyle of drinking with co-workers or friends on the regular. Prioritizing your mental health is a necessary and super important practice.
You Practice Gratitude
I know you’ve heard this from me before, but practicing gratitude is huge. It is the antidote to feeling down, depressed and feelings of lack. You may know about neuroplasticity, and if you do, you know that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means the more we practice thinking in certain ways, the more that set of neurons wire together to form a path in the brain. This makes it easier and easier for that type of thinking to be our new habit.
Thoughts and feelings are related, so practicing gratitude helps us to feel grateful. It sounds simple and it is (but it’s not easy to remember to actually do it)! No matter how big or how small, every day your practice is to remember to think of 1 or 3 or 10 things to be grateful for. This literally impacts your brain, which impacts your feelings, even if you don’t mean it or feel grateful when you’re doing it. Just keep doing it and let those neurons fire away. Examples of this may be: I am grateful for this pain free breath and pain free body. I am grateful for the health that I do have (even if other parts of me are not healthy). I am grateful for two working ears that allow me to hear the sounds of construction outside (reframing a negative experience to a positive one). I am grateful that my Mom is there for me when I need her and powering through her own challenges. The takeaway is if you’re making gratitude a part of your life, you are practicing self-care in a way that many counselors and psychotherapists would recommend.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this article. If you need help or someone to talk to, I am a licensed mental health professional in Vietnam. I work with people all over Asia (inperson or online), who feel depressed, anxious and are dealing with social and relationship challenges. Talk therapy, marriage counseling and couple’s counseling are common avenues to address these difficulties.