Dealing With Life’s Challenges With Rieko Uesaki

SEASON 2 EPISODE 18

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2020 has been a rough year for most of us. This week, Anthony teams up with Rieko Uesaki to discuss strategies for maintaining mental wellness in uncertain times. Rieko is a therapist and life coach. She runs a counselling service called Mindox and has recently authored a blog post about her recommended step-by-step process for living with uncertainty. In this episode, Rieko will break down her method with Anthony and take a closer look at habits we can build to be kinder to ourselves.

Conditioning: our learned responses

According to Rieko, conditioning is formed by various societal and personal factors in our lives. In other words, conditioning is a learned response to an object or a situation. For example, if you live in Australia you will probably be conditioned to react with fear when you see a big, dangerous-looking spider. Another well-known scenario for conditioning would be Pavlov’s dogs, who received the reward of food so often from the same person that they began to drool every time they saw him. You can learn more about conditioning here. Conditioning can be great for building survival instincts, but negative conditioning is possible too. Rieko believes that it is through negative conditioning that our mental health suffers in uncertain times.

Learning new things in a new norm

So how do we deal with negative conditioning and its impact on our mental health? In Rieko’s experience, the ultimate goal is compassion and greater kindness towards ourselves. Much of our negative conditioning is created when something unpleasant triggers a past trauma or difficulty. We end up reacting to this current situation the same way we did to the situation it reminds us to. To end this cycle, it’s important to identify old traumas and the reactions they cause. Then you can start building new, positive reactions and a better mental conditioning. To achieve this, Rieko outlines a five-step process.

Step 1: Learn about yourself

Rieko believes that getting to know yourself is the first and most important step towards practicing self-kindness. A good place to start would be a personality test like the 16 Personalities Test. These are evaluations based on compiled data and theories; you don’t need to consider them to be gospel truth. As Anthony points out, though, these tests can illuminate parts of your personality that even you might not have known about. Anthony, for example, had never considered himself to be an introvert. Taking the test and reading up on the result’s meanings helped him to embrace his less social side and live a life that was more suited to his character. If nothing else, personality tests give us food for thought on why we react in certain ways and how we can live happier lives. For Rieko’s process, learning about yourself can help you identify negative emotions and the triggers that cause them. This is already a big step towards certainty.

Step 2: Make a list of positive emotions

Now that you have a list of things that trigger negative reactions, try making an opposing list of feelings or situations that make you feel positively. For example, what are things that you can do or thought processes you can make that give you a sense of joy? How about gratitude? Find the positive emotions that are most impactful for you personally and write them down.

Step 3: Identify the actions or thoughts that cause positive emotions

It’s possible that many of us don’t spend enough time thinking about what makes us happy or positive. When we’re children, we actively seek out only things that bring us joy—and we never feel guilty for doing so. Both Anthony and Rieko consider how strange it is that the older people get, the greater an expectation there is for less fun and more business. In Japanese, the kanji for busy is 忙しい (isogashii): literally heart (心) death (亡). When we grow up and leave our childhood pursuit of unhindered happiness behind for a busy, responsible life, maybe we are also killing our hearts in a sense.

So think about your list of positive emotions from the previous steps. Think about what stimuli typically cause them. In Anthony’s case, an action that brought him great joy and excitement was mountain biking. He realized that if he watches recordings of his runs, it brings back the rush of when he was on his bike. Hobbies are a great place to start. What hobby or activity makes you feel positive? What are you passionate about? The coronavirus and consequent lockdowns may put a limit on activities we’re used to doing—work, vacations, parties, etc.—but there’s a good chance that you can use that extra time to invest in something else you genuinely enjoy.

Step 4: Combing your positive emotions and their triggers into an action plan

Using your list of positive emotions and actions that trigger them, try creating an action plan for the next time you feel stuck in uncertainty or weighed down with negative thoughts. Using Anthony’s example, his action plan might look like this:

Watching my mountain biking sessions gives me a feeling of joy. 
When I feel stuck in a negative mindset, I should watch some of my mountain biking videos.

If you’re more of a visual learner, it might help to physically write this formula down:

Doing ________ makes me feel (positive emotion).
When I feel stuck in a negative mindset, I should do ____________.

You can also download Rieko’s visual for the five-step process, which can be found here.

Step 4: Combing your positive emotions and their triggers into an action plan

Using your list of positive emotions and actions that trigger them, try creating an action plan for the next time you feel stuck in uncertainty or weighed down with negative thoughts. Using Anthony’s example, his action plan might look like this:

Watching my mountain biking sessions gives me a feeling of joy. 
When I feel stuck in a negative mindset, I should watch some of my mountain biking videos.

If you’re more of a visual learner, it might help to physically write this formula down:

Doing ________ makes me feel (positive emotion).
When I feel stuck in a negative mindset, I should do ____________.

You can also download Rieko’s visual for the five-step process, which can be found here.

Step 5: Practice, practice, practice

Positivity is like a muscle. The best way to make a stronger habit of positivity is to practice continually. The more you practice these steps, the less you’ll have to think about the process each time. According to one study, it takes about two months (66 days) to form a new habit. Why not set a challenge of positive thinking for yourself? Try to form a new habit of positivity. In Rieko’s words, this is “essentially giving yourself a gift of joy, a gift of gratitude, a gift of kindness, and that in itself is compassion.”

Other mental health resources

This has been a tough year, and we’re still only halfway through. If you find that you’re struggling with positivity and mental health, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Below are some links to resources both in Japan and abroad that can provide you with support and assistance.

  • TELL (Japan) – An international mental health support and counselling service for those residing in Japan. TELL offers free phone calls and chat services with the promise of anonymity, professional counseling, psychological assessments for children or adults, and more. Visit their website for extra tips on dealing with mental health during the pandemic and foreign-friendly emergency numbers or help lines.
  • Tokyo Counseling Services (Japan) – TCS is a private counseling service with certified multi-lingual staff. One of the senior staff, Andrew Grimes, has discussed mental health culture in Japan with Anthony on a previous episode. Tokyo Counseling Services caters to a variety of needs, including individual therapy styles such as behavioral therapy, marriage or couple counseling, family therapy, therapy for LGBTQ+ related issues, and more.
  • The Thrive Programme (UK, Remote) – The Thrive Programme is a sort of mash-up between counseling and behavioral therapy. It is a course which can be guided with a certified counselor or taken alone using one of the tailored manuals. The Thrive Programme is based in the UK but has several centers around the world, including China, the USA, and Canada. They also offer online services via video chat. For a list of the mental health issues Thrive can help you with, see their Get Help page.
  • Try a therapy or mental wellness app. There are countless options and price ranges out there, including services that accept various types of insurance.
  • Rieko Uesaki’s counseling service Mindox (Japan) – if you’re living in Japan and are curious about Rieko’s services, feel free to check out her website and inquire about a counselling plan that works best for you.
  • Lifeline – Remember that no matter how strong a sense of isolation this pandemic may cause, you are not alone. If you’re struggling with thoughts of self-harm, depression, or loneliness, please don’t hesitate to reach out. If you’re based in Japan and want some Lifeline resources that are more local, please check the page here.

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