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Interview with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Joseph Choy on Mindfulness, Neuroplasticity, and Mental Wellness for Asians

Interview with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Joseph Choy on Mindfulness, Neuroplasticity, and Mental Wellness for Asians

October 07, 2021

In our latest inspiring story, we interviewed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Joseph Choy on the importance of practicing mindfulness, the power of our brains to establish new patterns of behavior, and the steps we can take to start normalizing mental health, especially in the Asian culture. 

 

What led you down to this path to become a psychologist?

I think the primary impetus that influenced me most to become a psychologist was my own mental health struggles. When I was in my mid-teens, I suffered from undiagnosed insomnia and depression. I did not know how to ask for help, so I suffered alone. I spent many sleepless nights thinking about the nature of the human mind and suffering. I think this contributed to making me more of an empathic person. Because of this, I was often the person in my group of friends that offered advice and consolation. This brought me a sense of meaning and joy that was absent in my life. I felt alive when engaged with others in this way and also a sense of satisfaction and pride.

These early experiences shaped me to become very interested in psychology and seek a career in the helping profession. I majored in psychology in my undergraduate studies in Waterloo, ON, which deepened my interest in psychology. After I got my bachelor's, I was certain that this is what I wanted to do for my career. I applied and got accepted into a Doctor of Psychology program in Berkeley. I graduated from the program in Sept. 2018 and have been licensed to practice since 2019.

Your approach to therapy is based on mindfulness. What is mindfulness-based psychotherapy?

I like to use Jon Kabat- Zinn’s definition of mindfulness - “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, moment- by- moment, and non-judgmentally.”

When we experience what the mind labels as positive or negative, we have an automatic behavioral pattern that comes with it; such as a thought, emotion, or behavior, or any combination of these. For instance, if our mind is labeling an experience as “negative” then we have a natural reaction to avoid it. When our mind is labeling an experience as “positive”, the natural tendency is to desire. Why is this bad? Well, it isn’t really because much of our evolution depended on this very mechanism to survive. However, when this reaction is so automatic and fixed for us, we sometimes avoid things that are important to us, or conversely, we start craving the things in our lives that bring us pleasure and its absence causes us suffering. When this becomes the default way of reacting to events (internally and externally) in our lives, we get locked into a very narrow scope of behaviors and how life is experienced. We start to get attached to these default ways of living. When we get attached to certain ways of experiencing reality, we develop automatic and habitual behaviors that often cause and prolong psychological and mental suffering. 

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy works by training you to respond to life’s events in a non-judgemental and open way. This is helpful because we learn another way to experience life and it involves changing your relationship to your thoughts and feelings. Instead of reacting to events automatically, we can learn to simply accept and observe them. When we practice mindfulness, we are able to see events in life with more clarity and through a kinder lens. Thus, our ability to respond to difficulties with more skillful action is increased.

You've spent an extensive amount of time studying the brain. What is one fascinating thing about the human mind that most people don't know about (and you wish more people would know)?

The brain is incredibly neuroplastic. This means that the brain is constantly changing and has the ability to learn and grow- Yes even at older ages! Although it was once thought that neuroplasticity only manifests during childhood, research has shown that it continues well into adulthood, although the plasticity is exhibited at a lower degree compared to the developing brain.

This means that our ability to grow and learn, i.e. change our mental habits and behavior continues throughout our life. I’ve often heard people use the phrase “That’s just the way I am” as a way to not change. If our way of thinking and behaving is causing us suffering in the first place, then you can see how believing this ensures that we maintain and even intensify our own suffering. When we don’t think we are capable of changing, then we don’t put in the effort necessary to establish new patterns of behavior. This way of thinking and being keeps us locked into old patterns that usually cause more bad than good. 

Being able to express our emotions freely is not common in the Asian culture. Why do you think that's the case, and what is a healthy approach in processing our thoughts and feelings? 

I think because traditional Asian culture is inherently collectivistic, they value interdependence over independence. It is quite different from the individualistic culture that is reinforced in the west. Individualistic cultures tend to emphasize standing out and being different. Consequently, they are allowed if not encouraged to show strong or different emotions from their peers. Alternatively, I think there is a strong desire for Asians to fit in and not be different from our peers, showing emotions and ideas that are dissimilar can lead to ostracization. Because of this, we learn that it is safer to not express our emotions as it could cause strife and we feel the pull to preserve honor. Failure to do so often results in feeling ashamed. 

I think a healthy approach is a mindful approach, which is why I practice mindfulness-based psychotherapy. If you think about it, when we cultivate a mindful attitude or stance, we are communicating to ourselves that it is okay to have thoughts and feelings, even the really unpleasant ones. We do not try to hide, we simply acknowledge that they are there without judgment. When we do this, we stop resisting what is present which inherently brings about a gentleness and kindness to the experience, and this usually helps us process our often distorted thoughts in a more skillful and balanced way. 

Yoga and meditation are also wonderful ways to process our thoughts and feelings because they facilitate the mind-body connection. These practices often emphasize the felt sense of an experience and this helps us process our thoughts and feelings more holistically rather than just thinking about it.

In your opinion, what are steps we can take to break the stigma around mental health, especially for Asians, so we don't suffer in silence anymore? 

I think Sam Louie summarizes it well in an article when he says, “Mental health is viewed as a weakness, and talking openly about anything emotional (i.e. sadness, disappointments, various life events, etc.) is rarely encouraged. Stoicism rules while physical touch and verbal affirmation can be seen as coddling.”

I think this viewpoint is especially pronounced for Asians. However, I do think that this is slowly starting to change- I see more and more Asians who are coming into the mental health profession and seeking help than ever before. In addition, you can see that mainstream media’s portrayal of the typical Asian changing as they are breaking out of their traditionally type-casted roles such as the martial artist protagonist and into more diverse roles that highlight the various aspects of the human experience.

There are many steps we can take to break the stigma around mental health for Asians. I think that normalizing mental health problems is a good start. That means educating ourselves, talking about and being curious about mental health; treating it as a normal thing. I think we can do better in generating more interest about the arts as it can be a very healthy way to creatively and emotionally express ourselves. I also think that Asians, in general, are quite risk-averse which makes us less likely to do things we are uncomfortable with. Perhaps we need some gentle encouragement to take more risks in expressing ourselves even when it is not of popular opinion. It is usually to our benefit and if not, it is yet another opportunity to offer kindness to and remind ourselves that this is just all part of being human.

About Dr. Joseph Choy:

Dr. Choy is a licensed clinical psychologist who earned his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) from the Wright Institute in California. His clinical experience consists of working with diverse adults and teenagers. He has worked in VA hospitals, schools, community mental health agencies, homeless shelters, and a private practice clinic with an intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization program. He specializes in integrating evidence-based therapies to provide a unique, holistic, and individual approach to healing that is culturally sensitive, compassionate, warm, and attentive. He believes that by bringing awareness to behavioral patterns, we can find liberation from our wounds and fears and change our lives in more meaningful ways.

 

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