Header images courtesy of Laura Adai (via Unsplash)
Mental health is no longer the taboo it once was. With the global pandemic, increased awareness about depression and anxiety has led people to seek out various ways to support and take care of their mental health. While counselling or seeing a psychologist are leading ways to address a wide range of problems, there are always things you can add to your routine to foster a healthier relationship with your mind, body, and heart.
From traditional wisdom to new and innovative techniques, there are several ways you can start to nurture your mental health and engage in self-care. Here are some alternative or complementary therapies for you to try.
Note: Information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of professional healthcare providers. If you are thinking of suicide or hurting yourself, please contact the 24-hour Samaritans hotline at (+852) 2896 0000.
Many have endlessly extolled the virtues of yoga, and it can be combined with several of the other therapies listed below. Not only is it a form of exercise, but it also focuses on your breath and meditation—both essential elements for reconnecting with oneself. Yoga has been found to improve your mental health, even more so than regular exercise, as it elevates levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with better mood and decreased anxiety. Specifically poses like the Gomukhasana (cow face pose) is recommended for depression. Forward bends with your head supported also helps with anxiety.
Grab your yoga mat and head to your nearest centre, or if you prefer, just practice at home, and see the benefits of regular yoga. Here are some of our favourite yoga studios in Hong Kong, but the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Hong Kong is particularly recommended for its focus on mental health and well-being.
An ancient practice, the benefits of meditation on mental health have recently been bolstered through scientific studies. Our sympathetic nervous system, which is known to increase heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure during times of stress, is calmed by meditation. Meditation has been found to be helpful in relieving anxiety, pain, and depression. A quick session before sleep also helps relax your mind and improve sleep patterns.
While you can definitely practise meditation by yourself using apps such as Calm or Headspace, Hong Kong has a number of options to learn meditation with an expert, helping you declutter and find balance in the midst of the hustle and bustle. Find our list of recommended meditation studios here.
Most of us know how to breathe and often do not give a second thought to the process, but it is one of the most powerful tools available to us to help our body and mind reconnect mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. In particular, varying the elongation and duration of our breath using various breathing patterns activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help relieve stress and anxiety.
One of the leading breathwork experts in Hong Kong is Brian Lai, the founder of Primal Breathwork. He says that “the relationship between state and breath is bilateral—it goes both ways, so how we breathe matters a great deal.” Having trained with experts ranging from extreme athlete Wim Hof to breathwork instructor Dan Brulé, Lai is able to help each individual find their breath in a group setting as well as individual classes.
Another growing practice in Hong Kong is sound healing, which uses sound waves and vibrations to help your well-being and mental health. Whether it is gong baths, Himalayan and crystal singing bowls, tuning forks, or other instruments, sound healing works on the premise that when sound waves reach your ears, they are converted into electrical signals that trigger responses in your body.
Certain sounds help your brainwaves reach the frequency associated with deep relaxation (alpha/theta waves at 7.8 Hz), which calms your system and helps you attain balance in your mind and body. Other frequencies have also been known to release oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, a.k.a. the happy hormones. Check out our favourite sound healer, Yin Ki Wellness, to book your crystal sound healing session.
Continuing down the senses, our nose and skin are powerful receptors, and as practised for centuries, the oils of certain plants can be used to evoke responses. Aromatherapists thus use essential oils, which can impact your health either by stimulating centres of the brain by smell, or affect hormones and enzymes in the blood if applied directly. Perhaps the most well-known is the use of lavender to help relieve anxiety and stress, but plants ranging from peppermint to ylang-ylang to sage can be used to treat your ailments.
While you can definitely use essential oils on your own, you can check out our guide to Hong Kong-based brands, it might be worth visiting a specialist to help find the perfect blend to help your specific mental health. DK Aromatherapy, one of the largest specialised shops in Hong Kong, also offers treatments and programmes, or you can check out Sovos in Central to get a full massage or treatment.
Your grandparents have probably recommended it, and you might even have tried it, but acupuncture also has abilities to enhance wellness and improve mental health, along with its treatments for physical ailments such as chronic pain. In traditional medicine, mental illnesses such as depression are caused by a blockage of qi, and acupuncture can help unblock the flow of energy, thus reducing symptoms.
More scientifically, the body releases endorphins during acupuncture while increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients delivered to tissues. It also impacts your sympathetic nervous system, decreasing the body’s stress response thus improving mood. In addition to regular manual acupuncture, electroacupuncture has also been shown to have consistent beneficial effects on depressed mood. We recommend trying the treatments at Balance Health or Oriental Health.
Simple movements have tremendous benefits for your mental health, and the release of endorphins and regular practice can help develop a brain protein called BDNF that helps nerve fibres grow and impact your mood. Working with licensed dance movement therapists, as found here, can help you express your inner feelings and thoughts through movement in a safe environment, which can help with self-esteem and body image.
But if you are looking for something you can integrate into your daily routine, check out HK Movement Practice. Led by movement teacher Adres Vesga, a Ido Portal mentorship student, movements from martial arts, yoga, and dance are incorporated, and it helps you reconnect with your mind and body.
A more established and studied treatment—which requires therapists to get up to three years of a professional post-graduate degree to practise—is art therapy. Hong Kong Association of Art Therapists describes it as “a unique form of psychotherapy, where exposure to the art materials and the process of image-making, supported by the art therapist, can enable the client to activate their creativity to help reach a fuller potential.”
Using art as a tool for communication, art therapists work with you to represent your inner experiences, develop awareness, and support personal change. Studies have shown art therapy helping with illnesses such as depression, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. You can attend both individual and group therapy sessions at Creative Hearts Hong Kong.
We know that a dog can make anyone smile, but their benefits for our mental health go way beyond that. Like other service dogs, psychiatric therapy dogs can be trained to help with specific activities, whether it’s reminding those with depression to take medication, serving as a shield from hallucinations for those suffering from schizophrenia, or reducing anxiety for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you are just looking for a companion, you can get an emotional support animal, which helps by providing unconditional love, attention, and comfort during hard times. Interaction with dogs can help release neurotransmitters, increase oxytocin and dopamine levels, and decrease cortisol. You can book a programme with Hong Kong Therapy Dog Association or adopt an animal to immediately see the benefits of therapy dogs!
Finally, finding a community and a safe environment to share your experience with those who understand can be an incredible healing tool. Suffering from a mental illness can be a lonely experience, but support groups help you connect with individuals dealing with similar situations, which can be a powerful experience.
While Alcoholics Anonymous and veteran support groups have been made popular through media, there are a number of group therapy or workshops that you can join depending on your needs and requirements. Mind HK is an incredible resource and also has a community directory that can help connect you with the right group. If you are facing issues with your body image, Body Banter is a great platform to connect with others. If you are of an ethnic minority struggling with your mental health, reach out to the Zubin Foundation for assistance.
You might have already seen the article which describes what forest bathing is, a practice of engaging with nature, mindfully and with intention, but there are innumerable benefits of this therapy. In addition to the physical benefits of breathing fresh air and exercising, it can also have a positive impact on your mental health. It has an immediate impact on mood, as it reduces stress and can elevate your feelings of gratitude. It has also shown to improve sleep patterns and improve concentration, even in children with ADHD. Nature therapy can also help with depression, although research into other mental health issues is still required. Ultimately, it is a practice that strengthens connections with nature, other people and yourself. Two groups to begin this type of therapy are Shinrin Yoku and Kembali.