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Why Singaporeans are so anxious, from a psychologist.

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It has been mentally draining for most of us as we face more uncertainty than ever in our careers and our lives. With the pandemic and so much that is going on these days, it’s no wonder we’re balled up in a state of anxiety.

In a recent study, 74% of Singaporeans and PRs are feeling anxious due to the Covid pandemic. Many cited economic issues such as loss of jobs and a lack of career prospects, while fresh graduates are grappling with rough realities of unemployment.

Minister Heng Swee Keat even talked about a “lockdown generation” where those graduating in the midst of this recession and pandemic could have their employability seriously affected for many years to come. Grads have to fight for what little jobs that are left in the market. As if our culture is not competitive enough pre-Covid days.

Some of our friends have been let go by their companies. Some are facing career stagnation, and some are helplessly taking pay cuts. Some are feeling stuck, with alternative career plans thwarted and fallen in limbo.

Why Singaporeans are in a constant state of anxiety

A culture of excellence

Our workaholic culture is something that is deeply ingrained in all Singaporeans. For generations—since our early forefathers rowed their boats here to build better lives for themselves—our people subscribe to a single recipe for success:

Study hard, work hard; enjoy the fruits of your labour later.

Over time, our nation has developed a thirst for excellence. It’s all about doing more, getting more, having more.

Cliché as it may sound, there is some truth in the 5Cs analogy (cash, car, credit card, country club, condominium). Many Singaporeans still view that as the holy grail, mindlessly working themselves to the bone to gain financial freedom asap—only to suffer from burnouts.

A study by tech company Kisi revealed that Singapore is the second most overworked city in the world, after Tokyo. 23% of our workers here clocked more than 48 hours in a week.

The truth is, even though working hard is great work ethic, it is not be sustainable if you do not know how to recharge your batteries. When we’re working hard, we’re depleting our energy whether we know it or not.

In his book High Performance Habits, author Brandon Burchard found that high performers had an uncanny ability to generate energy to focus on the tasks at hand and motivation to sustain their high performance. In fact, energy is one of the key six high performance habits he discovered after years of research.

A competitive, structured education system

As Singaporean students, our education system is one that is extremely structured, with constant reminders on how well you are doing relative to your peers (banding into special/normal streams, etc). In a way, we are conditioned from young to partake in this endless competition to strive to perform better.

The result? We go on to view life similarly, as a bell curve.

During our growing up years in school, we are hardwired to focus on pushing up our grades, especially for “subjects we are weak at”. Here are the set subjects that are deemed important that we should all try our best to be good at. Go!

And so that’s exactly what we do. There is no time left to dive deeper into a subject we actually like and so little space left for unstructured play.

How do you differentiate between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder?

In my head, this is what having an anxiety disorder looks like: hiding in a dark corner and chewing on your nails all day. Definitely a hyper-dramatised version of what chronic anxiety really is.

What most people think anxiety looks like.

People with anxiety disorders look like you and me, and doesn’t necessarily manifest in depressive actions. It’s even possible for someone with an anxiety disorder to come across as a cheerful colleague in the workplace.

A lot of times, it’s all happening up in the mind where it’s invisible to others—the negative thought spirals, the endless what-ifs, the anxious state the mind and body are in.

There is a difference between feeling anxiety as an emotion in reaction to something (a natural human response) and being in a state of constant anxiety that starts to impact our wellbeing (an anxiety disorder).

Having an anxiety disorder typically involves you thinking about worst case scenarios, and feeling that you will not be able to cope. This can set off a chain of increasingly catastrophic worries. While worry can be a coping mechanism for some, it often leads to exhaustion and exact a toll on our mental wellbeing.

According to the latest study by the Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. An anxiety disorder is amongst the top three mental health disorders here, alongside depression and alcohol-use disorders.

More than 75% of people with a mental disorder did not seek treatment or help. We have somewhat desensitized ourselves to anxiety, brushing it off as just being stressed—a prerequisite of modern society.

Three quick anxiety-coping ways you can put into practice right away

1. Be aware that you are feeling anxious.

As psychologist Dr. Charmaine Lim shares, it all starts from being aware. Anxiety often manifests itself in our body through a pounding heart, sweating, restlessness, muscle tension and aches, stomach discomfort, difficulties sleeping, and so on. It is only when we recognise that these feelings of anxiety bubbling up that we can then proceed to begin alleviating it.

2. Create balance and find an outlet for anxiety that makes you feel good

Whether it is focusing on your breathing, yoga, or a work out that gets your adrenaline pumping, find an activity that allows you destress and decompose.

Exercise is a great way to release anxiety and simultaneously get your endorphins up in full throttle, not to mention it is amazing for your physical health. It could also be a creative outlet like painting or art.

3. When you feel swamped in a state of anxiety, bring your attention to the present moment.

When utterly convinced that Covid has derailed your plans, practise bringing your anxious mind back to the present moment. In psychological speak, it is known as grounding, where you tap into your five senses to bring your body out of a fight-or-flight state.

Begin by paying attention to what you are seeing right in front of you, the sensations in your body, followed by sounds, smells and taste. These serve as helpful ‘anchors’ to come back to the present moment.

The hardest part is to remember and apply these anxiety-coping strategies when we are feeling overwhelmed. Consciously building our awareness of anxiety is key.

The year is not over yet

If you’ve been feeling stuck for almost the entire year, or feel like the year’s wasted because you didn’t achieve the things you wanted, I get it. I’ve been there, too. My chosen form of escape? Binge-watching Korean dramas. And then feeling guilty and horrible that I let myself sink into this slump.

But instead of telling yourself this mental script that you have wasted the year over and over again, soaked in guilt and shame, why not try telling yourself: the year’s not over yet. Heck, the day’s not over yet.

You can still choose to spend the night reading that book you’ve always wanted to read, or signing up for that class you’ve always wanted to take. Be aware of how you speak to yourself. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself room to figure things out. Covid’s a new normal to stay for now. But soon, there will be another normal.

This too, shall pass.

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