As many readers will know, Malaysia has been praised for its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak since swift action was taken earlier this year.
In contrast, countries such as Britain and the United States have been much less organised – and many people much less willing – when it comes to following measures intended to minimise the spread of the virus.
Culture plays a significant role in how we act as a society. How we’re brought up and conditioned to conduct ourselves and behave toward others influences how we are as a collective.
Dr Chua Sook Ning of mental health NGO Relate Malaysia spoke to Dr Frederick Leong, an eminent psychologist from Malaysia who is based at Michigan State University in the United States, about how culture affects our perspective of the world.
In the podcast episode, “Understanding youth suicide in Asian cultures”, Dr Leong explained that, generally, Asians prefer to experience “low arousal, positive emotion”, whereas Westerners prefer “high arousal, positive emotion” states. In other words, Asians prefer to be calm and relaxed, to follow the rules and do what it takes to preserve social harmony.
These are ideal traits when a crisis occurs. In the West, people are more likely to flout rules, focus on individual freedoms and question expert authority in response to perceived restrictions on freedom. This explains why the pandemic has been so difficult to control in Britain and the United States, where collective safety is less of a priority.
However, the problem with cultures preferring “low arousal, positive emotion” is that when people experience intense, unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and stress, they might lack the inner resources required to effectively regulate these emotions.
According to Dr Leong, not only do Asians generally lack the skills to regulate their emotions, but they can also feel guilt and shame at the thought of sharing how they feel. As a result, the inability to deal with intense pressure can contribute to the increase in suicidality.
A common question about emotions is, “Why do we need to process emotions – can’t we just ignore them?” The reason why it’s so important to process our emotions in a healthy way is because when we don’t, our short and long-term health suffers as a consequence.
A 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester suggests that bottling up our emotions “may convey risk for earlier death” from all causes by a 30% increase. A 2011 study from the University of Texas showed that when participants watched a movie scene invoking disgust, participants who weren’t allowed to express themselves were “more aggressive afterwards” than those who were permitted to show their disgust.
When we bottle up our emotions, it becomes the psychological equivalent of sweeping dirt under the rug. The situation might look OK on the outside, but eventually, all that build-up has to go somewhere. If we don’t learn to regulate our emotions, it can cause all kinds of problems, from affecting our mental and physical health to causing issues within our relationships and professional lives.
One of the ways to help reduce suicidal ideation and attempts is for people to learn emotion regulation strategies, and to cultivate an acceptance that expressing our emotions is beneficial to our health and our ability to develop deeper connections with each other.
Of course, it’s important to note that suicide is a complex issue and there are no quick-fix solutions; however, learning to reduce feelings of stress and being overwhelmed would be a positive step in helping to reduce the risk of suicidal ideation.
It’s also important for us to understand that there’s no shame in expressing how we feel and that doing so is not a weakness. Suppressing emotions is a weakness in the literal sense that it impacts our immune system and cardiovascular health, and increases the risk of other mental and physical problems.
In my next few columns, I’ll be sharing some simple and effective regulation strategies that you can try for yourself, from meditation and journaling, to dealing in real-time with excessive thinking and unpleasant emotions as they show up.
I’ve written before on the importance of self-care and how it’s often viewed as a self-indulgent luxury. On the contrary, a growing body of research shows that self-care is a crucial ingredient of good overall health. In Malaysia, we’re fortunate to be able to access mental health organisations and NGOs such as Relate Malaysia that provide support and services to people in need of help.
That said, with a shortage of mental health professionals here, awareness of and education on the importance of preventative strategies such as emotion regulation would go some way to create a new cultural norm of taking the same care over our mental health as our physical well-being.
If there's anything you’d like to read about in this column, please feel free to email me at the address below and I’ll be happy to consider your suggestions. Should you need urgent support, you can contact the Befrienders at their 24-hour helpline, 30-7627 2929, or the service nearest to you; for a full list of nationwide numbers and operating hours, go to befrienders.org.my/centre-in-malaysia. You can also email email@example.com.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.