I’m A Psychologist And Coach, Here’s How I Approach My Mental Health And Growth (Part I)

Yes, I have my coaches and therapists. Yes, I supplement and walk an average of 7.7km a day this year. And yes, I will tell you I don’t have all the answers, I say stupid things, and sometimes I get lost in some chapters of my life. Sometimes my everyday life looks frivolous when you see the eating, shopping and fun. But I have made peace that I need my frivolous vitamins, and I strengthen my relationships this way. Plus that is never the complete picture as to what I do behind-the-scenes to grow. There are things nobody needs to know about or cares about.

This is what I tell my clients or prospective ones when they ask me.

I am a psychologist and coach, and I work with leaders, Type A personalities and their organisations around the world. Mental health and growth, for me, are things I walk my talk in. Not only do I research obsessively about them, I also practise them and integrate them into my life. Because I have come to learn that my growth is the best investment I can ever make. And to not be agile and respond to life, is to stack the odds against myself.

Exactly half my life ago— 18.5 years to be exact— I walked into my first psychology class. And as the very strange healing year that 2023’s been for me closes, here I’d love to share how I approach my mental health and growth with you.

Think of mental health in terms of compound interest to understand its gravity.
Mental wellbeing feels like a ‘must be nice-to-have’ luxury or only relevant when things are so bad that a diagnosis has been slapped on you. But really, I think of it in terms of what everyone understands— money.

  • If you borrowed $100 from a loan shark at an interest rate of 15%, and that’s compounded bi-weekly, that number turns to $3768 in a year. See this as how your bad habits compound and work against
  • And if you invested $100 per month for 30 years, at an annual interest rate of 4%, it feels slow and tiring because you have to keep putting in the work. But the basic sum of $36000 you invested becomes $67626.27. See this as your good habits.

And when it comes to your good health, think about it in two stages. First, healing what’s been or become dysfunctional. Then, optimising the system to grow with you. Both can happen at the same time for different parts of your life.

Mental health isn’t a mantra or a mindset you implant.

In fact, when you lie to yourself by doggedly repeating such affirmation— especially when you’re not feeling it— that emotional suppression will often erupt against you. And so,

1. Take care of your body

Here’s something I’ve learnt the hard way— willpower can only bring you that far. Trauma is stored physically and so must be released physically especially via regulating your brain, inhabiting your body by grounding yourself physically, and activating your vagus nerve. But think of the times when you have a headache, your metaphorical battery doesn’t have enough juice; sometimes it takes effort just to walk. And more importantly, people are living longer so keeping our physical bodies healthy is even more crucial— the earlier a chronic disease sets in, the longer the number of years you have to suffer through it and that often is linked to other chronic issues. Some things you can consider are:—

  • On a scale of 1-100, what are my battery levels like right now? What adjustments do I need to make to my day?
  • What are the things in my life that require energy no matter how much I might enjoy them? These might be seasonal, for instance holidays need to be planned, and require financial and emotional investment; or facts of your life like ill health or constant flying.
  • Am I taking good care of my hormones? For women, honouring your hormonal cycle and taking care of yourself towards and during menopause is key, it transforms your energy and headspace. For men, andropause and declining testosterone (/increasing oestrogen) levels are things to look out for because that affects your heart, brain, energy and bones.
  • Do I know what state my nervous system is functioning in? Here, I like to think of the polyvagal ladder. Are you functioning in dorsal vagus mode (immobilisation, even if you look like you’re functioning but aren’t getting anything done), parasympathetic mode (fight or flight; taking action), or ventral vagus mode (connected with yourself and the world, feeling safe).

2. Take care of your relationships

It’s old news that we are the average of the five people we surround ourselves with; and both toxic and ambivalent relationships are hazardous for your health. On that count, I often ask myself:—

  • Do I like who I give my energy to?
  • Do I like who I am and who I am becoming with these people?
  • Which relationships do I need to nurture more? How do I go about that?
  • Which do I need to let go of, what would it take for me to do that?
  • Where do I need stronger boundaries? How do I go about that?
  • What sort of people do I need (more) in my life? How do I go about that?

Besides the People Audit, I like to clean out my contacts book twice a year. In relationships, pick your battles too. There are things you do not need to explain to others, or engage in pointless debates— save your energy, especially in those who are being deliberately inflammatory.

3. Take care of your finances.

You have no mental health without financial health— we live in a world of rampant inflation and lifestyle creep. I like what Ramit Sethi teaches about finances:—

  • It’s not how much you earn, it’s how much you save and grow that determines if you are stuck on a treadmill that you cannot exit, or you enjoy relative freedom.
  • Your spending habits will change as you enter different phases of life, so keep reviewing.
  • Choose the parts of your life you want to spend on and cut ruthlessly on the things you don’t care about, even if others feel very differently.
  • Automate your investments on those that grow in the long run; don’t waste mental energy.

No matter where you are physically, financially or relationally, remember it’s all about growing these muscles. I don’t need a professional who works on all of them for me, as long as they understand the importance of each of these in my life and might signpost me, the way I signpost my clients to other services. For instance, taking care of the vagus nerve in trauma healing can involve singing, doing taichi, or having a deep tissue massage— these are things I don’t provide for my clients, but rather invite them to choose from what works best.

And most importantly when it comes to your mental health, it is not all in your head of course. But your head is what saves you, in the decisions you choose to take.

What you do has to fit your lifestyle, personality and values

You are complex and you shouldn’t doggedly be fitted into some three-letter model, life will change along the way and so you will have to collaborate with reality in adjusting your tactics or rewriting your strategy. Part of the secret, really, is data mining. Because you are the expert on you.

1. Consider your personality

From your chronotype (sleep personality and appetite), to whether you are neurodivergent, to your personal blend of how Type A/B/C/D you are, things will work differently for you. Having ADHD means I love to body double at Barry’s HIIT classes or write in a café, energised by others’ around me, but my introverted side means I can only run solo and reflect in quiet rooms. Just because someone says that a certain thing works for a certain wiring is not the only prescription— experiment, look deep into your personal history, and do things that make life easier for you.

2. But your wiring is not an excuse for disrespectful behaviour

I love the meme ‘your introversion is not an excuse to be an asshole’, because this isn’t just about my way or the highway. If a certain way of functioning works better with you, you can request for it, and then look for a happy compromise. For instance, I may ask someone for the freedom of handling my own time when it comes to a project, breaking it down to a few milestones, because I like autonomy. But that comes with the understanding that I always deliver.

3. Do you like seeking help virtually or in real life?

I have mentors, coaches and therapists virtually because that is the only way I access that specific person. I also love how I can simply switch on my MacBook and take it from there instead of a long commute. As someone who works with clients across six continents, I can attest that you tap into plenty of body language simply by video, and the results speak for themselves. Likewise, there are those who prefer being in the same room, or do not need specialist support.

4. When do you share the private details of your current struggles, and with whom?

Some people like sharing what’s going on whilst in the thick of it; and others only feel comfortable when it’s been resolved. Personally, I like to go through my struggle phases in private, hiring professionals; and I might share with my loved ones that I am currently working through something, and do not want any solutions or to talk about that, so they can understand my headspace may be a little occupied. Whatever works best for you, there is no guilt or shame; being aware simply helps you keep energy by not second-guessing yourself.

5. Just because you’re wired a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t catch up.

My fellow neurodivergents often feel like daily living is rigged against them; for instance autistic people often feel they are terrible at social relationships, and ADHDers might have messier finances or home cleanliness. Whatever it is, it’s never too late. The secret is to use what you’re great at as your unfair advantage, to catch up on the things you lag behind in. For instance, I used hyperfocus and an obsession with creating and tweaking systems, to transform myself from a once socially awkward person to someone with a pretty amazing network and close friends who fly 6000 miles regularly to eat with me.

6. Be More You

“I saw the angel in the marble, I just had to release him”— Michelangelo’s quote always gives me goosebumps. It got me thinking that too often, we do things that turn us into other people, that simply aren’t a good fit. And so we tar ourselves with too many ‘wellbeing’ items that clog our heads and time, and disconnect us from ourselves. Obviously, the basics of eating, hydrating, moving, breathing, relating and sleeping relatively healthily and sufficiently are universal; but the form that they take varies for us all. And hence I always invite my clients to think about the things that have always made them tick. For instance, Type A personalities may relax by running, whereas a Type B might prefer to tend to their plants.

7. It doesn’t matter if your motivation isn’t noble or socially acceptable

I’ll be honest, I wanted to get fit to wear cropped tops. In my head, my future self’s health wasn’t urgent enough for me to take action. So my basest motivation got me going, and I admitted it. Because I am tired of all the lies we tell ourselves. So if you decide to heal from trauma of abuse, so you can remember your old potential, partly because you want to prove your ex wrong, I’m cool if that is your biggest reason. You will have a cocktail of motivations, and as long as one gets you going, that’s what we will work with. Your main reason will change along the way. Now my main motivation is quality health; just like my ex-abused clients’ now want to inspire others and be their champions.

Like this? Look out for Part II.