I’m A Psychologist & This Is How I Take Care Of My Mental Health


Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy

Author:

December 19, 2023

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy

Doctor of Clinical Psychology

By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy

Doctor of Clinical Psychology

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.

Image by Lauren Lee / Stocksy

December 19, 2023

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Clients often ask me, as a clinical psychologist, how I actually care for my mental health. Sure, I have my coaches and therapists, I take supplements and make sure to get my steps in, And yes, I’ll also tell you I don’t have all the answers.

Sometimes my everyday life looks frivolous when you see the eating, shopping, and fun. But I’ve made peace with those needs—plus it’s never the complete picture of the growth happening behind the scenes.

I am a psychologist and coach, and I work with leaders, Type A personalities, and organizations around the world. Mental health and growth, for me, are areas in which I walk my talk. Not only do I obsessively research, but I also practice and integrate the things I’ve learned into my life.

I’ve come to learn that my growth is the best investment I can ever make; 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 has been for me comes to a close, 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 well-being feels like a “must be nice” luxury or only relevant when things are so bad that a diagnosis has been slapped on you, but I think of it in terms of something everyone understands: money. 

  • If you borrowed $100 from a loan shark at an interest rate of 15%, and that’s compounded biweekly, that number turns to $3,768 in a year. See this as how your bad habits compound and work against you.
  • 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 $36,000 you invested becomes $67,626.27. See this as your good habits. 

When it comes to your good health, think about it in two stages: First, healing what’s been or become dysfunctional. Then, optimizing the system to grow with you. Both can happen at the same time throughout 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 affirmations—especially when you’re not feeling it—that emotional suppression will often erupt against you. Try this instead:

1.

Take care of your body

Something I’ve learned the hard way is that willpower can only get you so far. Trauma is stored physically, and so it must be released physically, especially by 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 or 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.

Some things you can consider are:

  • On a scale of 1 to 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, i.e., 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, honoring your hormonal cycle and taking care of yourself toward and during menopause is key. It transforms your energy and headspace. For men, andropause and declining testosterone, plus increasing estrogen levels, are things to look out for because they can affect your heart, brain, energy, and bones. 
  • Do I know which state my nervous system is functioning in? Here, I like to think of the polyvagal ladder. Are you functioning in dorsal vagus mode (immobilization, 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 not only that, but 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, and 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? 

Along with this “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 about—save your energy, especially with those who are being deliberately inflammatory. 

3.

Take care of your finances

You have no mental health without financial health. 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 if 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 things 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. For instance, taking care of the vagus nerve in trauma healing can involve singing, doing tai chi, or having a deep tissue massage. These are things I don’t provide for my clients but rather invite them to choose based on what works best for them. 

And most importantly, when it comes to your mental health, it’s not all in your head, of course—but your head is what saves you through the decisions you choose to make. 

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

You are complex and don’t need to fit into some model or standard. Life will change along the way, and so you’ll 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

Having ADHD means I love to body double at Barry’s HIIT classes or write in a café, energized by others’ around me—but my introverted side means I can only run solo and reflect in quiet rooms.

Experiment, look deep into your personal history, and do things that make life easier for you, regardless of what everyone else is doing or expects from you.

2.

Your wiring is not an excuse for disrespectful behavior

I love the meme “Your introversion isn’t 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 it and then look for a happy compromise. For instance, I may ask someone for the freedom to handle my own time when it comes to a project and break it down into 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’s the only way I can access that specific person. I also love how I can simply switch on my laptop and take it from there instead of having 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 while they’re in the thick of it; others only feel comfortable once 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 head space 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. Autistic people often feel they’re terrible at social relationships, for example, while 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 hyper-focus and an obsession with creating and tweaking systems in order to transform myself from a once socially awkward person to someone with a pretty amazing network and close friends who fly 6,000 miles regularly to eat with me. 

6.

Be more you

“I saw the angel in the marble, I just had to release him.” This Michelangelo quote has always given me goose bumps. It got me thinking that, too often, we do things that turn us into other people—things that simply aren’t a good fit.

We cover ourselves with all these well-being items that end up clogging 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 they take varies for us all.

As such, 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. But that motivation got me going, and I admitted it because I’m tired of all the lies we tell ourselves.

If you decide to heal from the 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. 

Identify your latest limiting factor

In every chapter comes a new struggle. Sometimes the struggle feels stupid because you aren’t objectively suffering, but it’s existential, you have no reference points, or you feel it’s a vapid, First World problem. This is likelier the more you’ve grown as a person and built up your inner and external resources.

So let’s first come to terms with this: Your struggle is valid.

Next up, with every struggle comes a new factor that’s limiting you. As a young person, your limiting factors are likely to be experience, skills, or money. You sacrifice your sleep and health to build them up, also because your body is still robust, and as you build them up, they start compounding benefits.

Then, your new struggle might become emotional intelligence, a great network, or time. Following which, it might morph into mindset, health, or old demons that you’ve always tolerated “just fine.”

Identify these struggles, because to grow into the next version of you, you will have to make this limiting factor work for you.

You don’t need your routines and rituals to be perfect

Here’s my confession: I sleep very late every day. Part of how I understand this is that with ADHD, when I am awake, the world is so amazing that I don’t want to sleep, and when I am asleep, that world is so amazing, I don’t want to wake.

And while I get all the science for sleeping earlier—including what my facial gal always tells me about even better skin—I don’t want to pressure myself too much on getting everything right. Plus, I sleep an average of nine hours anyway, so for now, I am at peace with this. 

Similarly, there will be aspects of your routine you may not get “perfect.” While you will benefit from getting better, as long as 75% of your foundational life is in order, you don’t need to scare yourself. 

This is the same way I think about people who are afraid of rice, pasta, or cake—which contributes to a mental health struggle called orthorexia. If you eat generally thoughtfully most of the time, white carbs are all right. Plus, there are seasons for cakes, like birthdays and the holidays. So if you actually like cakes and burgers, you don’t need to cut them out from your life forever.

I also do my best not to eat, sleep, or “indulge” from a place of escaping my emotions. My favorite rule I learned from fitness personality Dan Go is “Don’t make one bad day, two.”

In other words, you may fall off your good habits for a day because you wanted to comfort (or punish) yourself. And what most people end up doing is punishing themselves for that by spiraling further. 

Here’s the deal: You’re human. Keep one bad day at one bad day. Tomorrow is a brand-new day.

Don’t shoot the path that got you here

A big issue I see with Type A personalities is lamenting about how they were brought up as ever-achieving perfectionists. A part of this has to do with increasing levels of mental health awareness in the zeitgeist, as well as op-eds on how people should learn emotional intelligence instead.

It got me thinking about my younger self. People were gagging to teach me how to socialize and develop some emotional intelligence, and for some reason, I saw no need to, nor had any desire to. Plus, if I hadn’t developed my academic and commercial sides, where would I be today?

For my clients, this makes them question their entire timeline, as if what they’ve accomplished becomes moot because all they did was go to medical school or law school. 

And so, I have a strong belief in not shooting the path that got you here. Rather, wherever you are in your life today, there will be gaps and vulnerabilities, like how emotional intelligence was mine in my 20s. When you realize you want to work on them, of your own accord, you will strengthen and grow these skills. 

Similarly, don’t shoot your successes by downplaying them. I am guilty of thinking things like, “It’s easier for me to do XYZ or accomplish ABC because I don’t have the pressures of child care,” or, ” I had a great education because my parents gave me the funds.”

For everything that comes easily to me, or every success that I have, I automatically compare my path to someone who’s had it harder. And my perfectionist head will inevitably pick someone with maximum struggles, from their financial resources to their cognitive wiring to being a refugee.

And then I stop myself. For every privilege and freedom I’ve had today, I have also paid the price of forgoing something else in my past, present, or future. And I’ve also struggled and worked hard enough, and I have nothing to prove by suffering more.

Part of the issue comes from what naysayers say, so I do my best to silence those narratives by distancing myself and reminding myself to stop suffering to satisfy people who don’t care about me. 

Having a relatively blessed everyday life doesn’t make me removed from understanding others’ lives, especially in my job and as a human being

Three years ago, I had a major family crisis that changed my priorities. I was on the lookout for my family emotionally and creating contingency plans. And I was blessed enough to organize my career in a way that allowed me to work fewer hours.

And that is something I’ve also battled inside deeply for the same amount of time. 

Watching out for someone else drains your energy, so of course I would want to devote fewer hours in order to produce quality work. And with everything I know about empathy burnout, I also filled my life with social and personal projects and goals so I would come out of this chapter stronger, having made the best of it. 

But it is only in retrospect that I’ve deeply come to terms with these realizations instead of merely knowing them intellectually. 

The biggest absolution I’ve gained about the way I’ve designed my everyday life has come from author Shane Parrish’s Clear Thinking. It is in how you live your ordinary moments that determines success because you have bandwidth and a clear head to make better decisions for yourself. 

It’s often easy to wonder whether you’re living “correctly” if you’re not frazzled and doing a million things, especially in a wired culture like Singapore. The rules of how others live can make you doubt your choices, and defending your choices can be exhausting. 

And that helps me understand that it’s those years of working very hard and making responsible choices that got me to a place where I could step back and focus on family. Throughout the last three years, I worked hard on myself too, building stronger foundations for my future and solid relationships with my tribe.

In exchange, I’m the healthiest and fittest I’ve ever been in my entire life, and these habits have become automatically ingrained. I should not shoot down this success and imagine I should be in shambles today in order for those three years to have been “valid.” 

And as I emerge from that chapter, I hold my head up high knowing I lived it responsibly.

Now, I understand that I’ve just graduated from another level in the School of Life: knowing that the valleys are temporary and, more importantly, the plateaus don’t last forever. 

It is with that, that I consciously make my ordinary moments and everyday life work for me and with me. 

It’s what you do in your day-to-day life—between your check-ins with your coaches, healers, and therapists—that matters most

You can go to a retreat on a deserted island, and you will likely lose weight, feel more at peace, and feel happier if you’ve been fed on fresh fruit and hearty soups and have been breathing deeply with others.

But what happens when you go back into your real life and your phone pings every two seconds between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and the easiest thing to eat is takeout, while you hate your boss, partner, or friends?

Sure, you can go on another retreat next year, but in the meantime, yo-yoing between the reprieve and the chaos is what gets people feeling more helpless and hopeless every time the cycle repeats itself. That is what I call, the “And Then What? Problem.”

Real life is the stress test, the active training ground for how you live and grow. The real issue with your phone might lie in the fact that you allow every type of notification and don’t mute it for certain hours of the day. The real issue with burnout might lie in poor boundaries and not knowing how to take care of your body in a way that is optimum for you. 

And so there might be habits to delete from your life, like that automatic taxi, and fitting in a walk. Or being more thoughtful about the food you order, popping a few supplements for brain health, or consciously deep breathing several times a day. 

The sum total of these ordinary and boring decisions and how you keep showing up (imperfectly) is really what matters.

That retreat or session with the professional you hired can only do so much. Or to quote the wisdom from my facialist, she can only clean your face that well—the magic happens if you take care of your skin every day, and then her monthly treatments turbocharge everything. 

The takeaway

The thing about mental health and growth is that it’s really meant to be lived. A session with your professionals, a book, or a retreat can inspire you, give you epiphanies, and cartograph a map. But what you do over and over again becomes your habits, and those habits become your character.

You will grow. Life and the world will change. Part of this is learning how to pivot and collaborate with reality, to tweak your systems so they grow with you. And so much of this, to me, boils down to winning the inner game.

I remember what a trusted confidant taught me as I was finding myself entrenched in a strange place while looking out for my family: “Don’t fight in the North or the South. Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.” —Lord Petyr Baelish, Game of Thrones.

That reminded me of the person I’d always been and the person I wanted to be again. So the thing about your mental health and growth is it really isn’t a luxury—it’s the best investment you can ever make.

At times, you may feel disheartened that there aren’t immediate, huge returns on your salary or assets. But remember, that network you built in your 20s may only start fruiting in your 30s and 40s. Same concept here. And ultimately, winning the mental game is really about playing the long game.



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