The Big Fat S Word and What To Do With It

A new friend of mine over at the American Foodie (Ithacan foodies, I highly suggest hoppin’ over to his blog) suggested I write about how to deal with your mental wellbeing while under pressure. I have been confronting a variation of this question ever since I’ve arrived at the steps of the Ivory Tower. It began with the mission of one organization. It has permeated into my personal life. And finally, the question of mental well-being as applied to the Asian American identity has pervaded my own intellectual thought. The quick answer is: it’s complicated. But, if you’re willing to endure the drab conventional wisdom and puns as it applies to the Asian American identity, hear me out. They go in order from range of difficulty. 

1. Admit it. You’re stressed. 

Trust me. Do NOT overlook this one. In high-performing academic circles, it is easier to be in denial that you are overworked and stretched out. To begin to treat a problem, we must first acknowledge that such a thing is an issue for us in the first place. And you know what? Once you admit it, even if just to yourself, you can then accept yourself. It’s okay to be stressed out. Even if a little. In fact, it’s even healthy. Where it gets fuzzy and even dangerous, is when you don’t know the difference between functional stress and dysfunctional stress. 

2. Look for our own indicating clues.

When we are all stressed, we resort to certain modes of habit, deliberate cycles of thought and/or action triggered by stress. I like to think of all of us as idiosyncratic. Here, I can’t tell you in what form stress will manifest in your life. That is for you to realize. For me, my laundry starts piling up. I stop doing the dishes. I eat takeout more often. In general, I have a loss of vitality for the basic actions of self-care, or self-love. For others, when people’s stress levels are high, they may lead to negative cycles of thinking. Now, I’m not a psychologist or a good substitute for a counselor. BUT, something you can easily do is take a mental note of what exactly you do when you’re stressed out. That’ll serve as a mental cue for you to understand your mind-body’s way of changing. You may realize that your methods to reduce your stress aren’t helping. Or you may realize that your methods are highly effective. Most of the time you’ll find out that you can improve in some manner.

3.  Look for help (friends and family).

If you find you can’t handle your own level of stress, it may be time to look to your friends and family for support. Many of you, including myself, don’t want to burden friends and family with ALL of the stresses we have. Yes, sometimes it is a little unfair, the give and take, especially when it is uneven. But I notice that for those who are Asian American, it is easier to open up to friends and family than it is to seek (openly that is) counseling and psychological services. Be sure to look for a friend who is wiling to listen to you empathetically. That is, I wouldn’t look for a friend who’s always eager to lend their advice and judgment, unless that is what you’re looking for. Sometimes the most highly effective support people are the most silent. Sometimes a supportive presence is all we need. 

4. Look for help (professional services).

Okay. So now you’re here. Chances are you’re either in a very dire situation, you’re incredibly bold, or you care about your friends/family so much you don’t want to burden them with your baggage. All right. Starting to use therapy, counseling services and psychological services can be incredibly stressful, as funny as that seems. Why? Because there is a HUGE stigma when it comes to even admitting the fact that you may need these services. When I started out, I was fortunate enough to have the support of a club to back me up on trying it out. For some of you, there may be no community support to seek these services. You know what? It’s time to let go of looking for approval. Drop your anchor because your personal well-being is serious business. The doors to counseling and psychological services might look drab and cold to you, and you may be disappointed by what you find inside there. I ask that you accept these risks. But open the doors, and (if you have health insurance that’ll cover it), do yourself a favor, try being vulnerable, and give it a shot. 

If you are at Cornell, some greater risk-free options include EARS (a telephone and in-person service), CAPS’s Let’s Talk, talking to /certain/ student services administrators. Don’t forget that there are national hotlines and chatrooms that can give you a very small taste of what therapy is like. I think nothing replaces some form of professional intimacy. 

5. Look for help (self-help).

If the previous option seemed unlikely for you to use, I would do the next best thing: generate change within yourself by your own means. I highly recommend self-help books. Sure, you might guffaw and something that might just look like shallow wisdom. But I have gained tremendous satisfaction from reading self-help books, so much so that for a period of time I shunned fiction books altogether. So what if most of the sentences are like fortune cookies? You need to expose yourself to positive modes of thinking to replace the negative cycles of thought that pervade our day-to-day lives. Just read something that makes you feel good about yourself AND makes you want to change. Watching kitten YouTube videos is great, but it won’t incite you to change. If your mode of destressing is running for example, I would highly recommend reading Murakami’s book on marathon running. 

6. Arm your Asian American identity. Understand yourself. 

This, I think, is fundamentally the most controversial thing that I would persuade people to do. First, because this might make things worse. Combating the very issues that cause a mental health crisis in the first place on the institutional level is not a game. Learning about the institutional/normalized things that perpetuate unfortunately common incidents of stress for Asian Americans in particular can depress you (it certainly depressed me). It can cause permanent disillusionment. It can also crush whatever walls you built up for yourself. But, if you are willing to pay the price of vulnerability, you can emerge with a better view of yourself and the world around you. Taking a course or reading something about Asian American Studies can help you better understand why so many Asian Americans are stressed out, sometimes to the point of ending their own lives. It will offer you the option to step outside of the stereotype for the rest of your life. But it also burdens you with the knowledge that is no longer the majority. 

7. Share your experience honestly with people around you.

Loneliness from a viscerally-felt level, doesn’t mean you don’t have friends. You may be in a SEA of relationships and friendships, but you will feel lonely. When you are under distress for whatever reason, it is better to be with a supportive group of people. But we shouldn’t always be recipients of a supportive community. We must also be creators of this supportive community. I am just tapping into this stage I think, partly through the creation of this blog. I admit, I’m not incredibly open with my experience, partially because I don’t completely understand what happened to myself a year ago. But you need not alienate yourself with a full-blown diagnosis to the world, although I think, for the few brave among you, that is the best kind of honest medicine the world needs: faces to all these supposedly taboo disorders. Tell someone you were upset. Or just let yourself cry in a semi-public space for once. I don’t think crying should ever be a source of shame. They are a source of honesty. Or, you can share your own difficult experience and challenges to someone else who is experiencing something similar (but never the same). I am fortunate to have had a family and loved ones who were there for me in a great time of inner-turbulence. But I also realize that it’s not enough for me to reap these benefits. 

This step is hard, because you have to understand the risks that come involve with being open about having a form of mental health problem. I’m still struggling with this one, partially because I know that it is a voice that is worthy of being spoken, but I don’t know if there’s enough visible support out there. 

I know that this stuff applies to people who are not Asian American. To be quite frank, sometimes the most obvious things about mental health upkeep are somehow overlooked. I think I question myself on all these platforms at some level every day on my life. I think I have only met one person in my life who has been consistent in all these levels. Niel, I hope on some level this answers your question. It might not have been the answer that you have been looking for, but this is an honest talk between myself and the audience. You can try to improve productivity and generate healthy life habits, which I think everyone should do, but the Asian American conscious of maintaining their mental well-being should confront at least some of these platforms. Take baby steps first, and see where you go.

I hope this helps everyone. Clearly, this isn’t rocket science. I wrote this as a stream of conscious thought, so if my sentences sound choppy, please bear that in mind. If you have more specific questions, feel free to email them to me at, or comment down below. Thanks! 



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