Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, once said that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”; it would not have been out-of-place if he added stress to that list.
According to the Oxford dictionary, stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. Perhaps it is one of the few commonplace afflictions that doesn’t discriminate regardless of one’s race, nationality, creed or even gender.
WHY YOU SO STRESSED?
Living in a competitive country where societal and personal expectations in life are paramount, it is certainly not a stretch to say that we Singaporeans are a stressed out bunch. From a young age, we are bombarded with extra-curriculum activities (hands up if you too were dragged to piano or swimming lessons) and tuition classes, on top of a taxing school schedule.
All this in order to satisfy not only our parents’ expectations (fail PSLE = end of your life), but also our own. I am pretty sure that we all have our own toxic memories of comparing marks and running the rat race of education. If you were spared, then the sobering case of a Primary 5 student taking his own life should drive the point home.
And it doesn’t end with school. Graduating into the workforce just means more of the same shit, just under a different name. Gotta ace that performance review or miss out on a promotion (and the 5Cs) and be deemed a failure by society. It is no wonder that Singaporean workers are more stressed than our counterparts in Hong Kong and China.
However, it is important to note that stress is not altogether a bad thing. A moderate amount of stress can actually serve to drive and motivate us in life. Heck, I have stress to thank for the very article that you are reading right now. [Ed: It wasn’t me.]
The dangers of stress tend to come about when one has bitten off more than one can chew. So what are the tell-tale signs that you should be looking out for?
According to local psychotherapist Winston Tay from Charis Lifeworks, obvious signs of stress overload can manifest through physical symptoms. There is an overwhelming urge to withdraw from others as the stressed out individual tends to fall sick easily, becomes quick-tempered or even breaks down for no apparent reason. Winston says this stems from our basic “fight or flight” instinct – a primal response to either stand our ground or run away in the face of adversity.
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING STRESSED
So, what exactly are the long-term risks of being chronically stressed? Aside from the physical psychosomatic symptoms that have been mentioned above, Winston also adds that the body will react in other ways to excessive stress exposure. He states that there is a study that links chronic stress to cancer growth.
At the same time, Winston explains that chronic stress can also bring with it mental health issues. It is not uncommon for one to suffer from anxiety issues, depression and – in the worst case – personality disorders.
Citing a case of a 15-year-old obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) patient, Winston says that the condition was brought about by a traumatic event caused by a very stressful situation. It had such an impact on the patient that the mere thought or mention of the event caused his patient to relive the horror of the trauma.
Being a rather stressed individual myself, and having learnt about the adverse effects of chronic stress, your humble writer decided to explore two very different approach of destressing. On one hand, I decided to explore the enlightened (or civilised) approach of psychotherapy – an approach that is endorsed by all mental healthcare professionals.
But to balance things out, and on the other extreme end of the stress relief spectrum, I have settled on the more visceral destressing activity gripping our little island, the rage room.
TALKING SOLVES EVERYTHING
First up, psychotherapy. Having booked myself a date with Winston, I find myself in his office, settling on his very comfy couch. If that didn’t put me at ease, then Winston’s soothing demeanour most certainly help bring my overbearing stress level down.
One of the more common schools of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talk-based treatment method centred on achieving a specific goal. In this case: How better to manage my chronic stress level.
CBT is a proactive form of therapy that relies on me (the patient) and Winston (the psychotherapist) “being in a collaborative place”; meaning that I have to firstly, WANT to feel less stressed, as well as be an active participant (some homework is involved). Typically, a course of CBT therapy can run anywhere between six to eight sessions.
Probing into my vortex of neurosis, it does not take long before we identify a recent incident that caused me some distress. Feeling left out by a particular group of friends, I confide to Winston that it disturbs me that they did not contact me for a recent outing. I felt like they did not enjoy my company, due to the possibility that I’m a bad friend. The incident left a bad taste in my mouth and resulted in a higher than usual level of cynicism towards friends and friendship in general.
Walking me through it, Tay explains rationally that CBT works on the premise that any issue can be traced back to “a cognitive disturbance”, or in plain speak, an irrational thought. He pinpoints my perception of being a bad friend as an example of an irrational thought that spiralled out of control. Tay gently disputes my notion and forces me to run through the other logical reasons that could have caused my friends to not invite me out: Say, they thought I was busy; maybe it was a last-minute affair and they simply forgot to ask me.
This, in turn, brings me back to a more stable thinking process, which has the ripple effect of positively affecting my emotions as well as my behaviour. That, Winston says, is the basis of CBT.
CBT is not all talk and no action. In conjunction with talk therapy, Tay also utilises several tools to further flesh out his point. He uses role-playing exercises to address my social inadequacy, by playing out all my possible paranoid fears. I must admit, things in your head do usually sound crazy once vocalised. Winston also suggests that I touch base with individuals from the group of friends in question and report back with their responses.
Through this piece of ‘homework’, Winston is able to instil a mode of thinking that enables me to avoid falling into the same pit of despair if faced with a similar situation.
Psychotherapy, or more specifically CBT, not only addresses the root of the problem (the initial irrational thought) but also equips participants with the necessary coping skills for future use.
However, it is important to note that CBT does have certain drawbacks. First, it is dependent on your chemistry with your psychotherapist. If you fail to connect with your psychotherapist, then it is hard for any treatment, CBT or otherwise, to work.
Secondly, there is a heavy emphasis on positive thinking; one is always led to look at a positive spin on things; no matter how negative a situation may seem. Lastly, Tay mentions that CBT has very little focus on one’s past. So if there is a chance that a particular incident stems from a past issue, chances are that it ain’t solved yet.
Do note that CBT is but one of the various schools of psychotherapy. Your psychotherapist CAN and usually WILL employ other treatment methods if CBT fails to achieve any discernible results.
DESPITE ALL MY RAGE (I’M STILL JUST A RAT IN A CAGE)
Now, on to the second destressing activity: Rage Room. Taking its name from the fragment of debris left after each session, The Fragment Room is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
The premise of the rage room is simple enough: You enter a safe space, fully decked up in protective gear, and go ape-shit, smashing breakables with a baseball bat.
If you are so inclined, you may bring in your own personal items to destroy. Hell, you’ll even get to play your own music while doing so; because after all, music does soothes the savage beast, no?
No surprise then that the slogan of the joint is “Instant. Gratification.”.
Likening the rage room experience to a night out drinking with friends (sans hangover and hole in wallet), Fragment Room owner Royce Tan started this endeavour “to break from the fucking conformity”. He sees this as a much-needed avenue of self-expression in “a conformist society” like Singapore.
And locals seem to agree with Royce. With over 40 bookings a day, Royce sees customers of all ages walk through his door: His website booking crashed from the sheer volume of requests, even before the Fragment Room opened its doors in early May.
He cites the case of a 46-year-old salaryman who claimed that he has been waiting for a place like the Fragment Room all his life; a young primary school girl was the first to actually break a bat at the Fragment Room.
The ex-furniture sales executive is so confident of this concept that his website proudly tells people to skip the shrink and head down to The Fragment Room instead. Rating it 10 out of 10 as a destressing tool, he says he feels relaxed after a session and that “the sound of breaking glass is satisfying”.
Royce’s only gripe so far: People who are not making the most out of the rage room experience.
Although most sessions run for 30 minutes, he notices that most people spend more time taking photos or videos than actually smashing stuff. And this detracts from the whole point, which Tan aptly describes as “when you go in… you really like go berserk… release everything you have”.
Having been psyched up by Royce, I could not wait to get my hands dirty. After suiting up in Walter White-esque protective gear, I grab my bats (both wood and metal) and load up Slipknot’s 9.0: Live as my destruction soundtrack-of-choice. I cannot emphasize the importance of music in this activity as it is the first thing that gets your destructive groove going.
On another personal note, I will recommend some warm-up exercises to not only stretch your muscles but also to get the blood flowing. Skip it and suffer the unspoken agony of nagging aches and pains the day after at your own peril.
As Wait And Bleed blare over the speakers, I tap my bat and drag it on the floor like Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Upon the Corey Taylor’s vocals kicking in, I picture the beer bottle in front of me as my mortal enemy, and unleash hell! I must admit it feels good; much like the endorphin rush one experiences after exercising.
But even with all the adrenaline coursing through my veins, destroying stuff is hard physical work. After five solid minutes of wrecking breakables, I can hear my muscles screaming for mercy (or is it just me screaming?) and see damp spots form on my white protective coveralls due to built-up sweat. Now, this is where your soundtrack really helps keep your destructive momentum going.
Personally, I prefer the wooden bat over its metallic counterpart. The metal bat can be a killjoy; obliterating breakables to smithereens. The wooden bat, on the other hand, is not only lighter and easier to handle, but also left the breakables in large chunks; ideal for stomping practice (with or without your bat).
As for the breakables on offer, bottles are the easiest item to break that puts a smile on your face. While flat cutlery such as dishes only add to my frustration as it is quite a challenge to take aim. Nonetheless, that frustration can only be beneficial as you draw deep and unleash hell. If all else fails, feel free to introduce your bat to the leftover garbage pile in the room. It makes me mad that people are so sloppy as I discover partially destroyed appliances and breakables; a situation that my wooden bat and I are happy to remedy.
My verdict: A rage room session is definitely more satisfying and destressing than exercising, karaoke or even attending a live concert: Karaoke seems pedestrian in comparison, and it sure beats the head banging workout of a Slipknot concert. By the time I exit the rage room, I could feel my stress dripping away along with my sweat.
So does the Fragment Room’s statement of skipping the shrink ring true? My two cents is that both activities have their own place and purposes. For instance, I did not get to the root of my problems with the rage room session. Neither did it equip me with any skills to better cope with stress in the future.
On the other hand, CBT did not provide me as much immediate relief and gratification as the rage room session.
So ultimately is there a superior destressing activity? Rather than seeing rage rooms and psychotherapy as the antithesis of each other, I see a symbiotic relationship. Especially in the context of Singapore.
Singaporeans aren’t the type to openly talk about their feelings (unless it is in the form of a complaint). And besides, there is the thorny issue of the unspoken social stigma surrounding psychotherapy in Singapore.
It is in our culture to keep things bottled up. We do from a young age, out of a fear of judgement by others. I would argue that we are so repressed that we probably don’t know what it is like to be let our emotions run wild in a safe space.
And this is where the rage room comes in. It provides a solitary environment, a judgement-free zone in which Singaporeans can learn to express their feelings. There is no one else in the rage room except you, making it less daunting than a one-on-one psychotherapy session.
Rage rooms can serve as emotional training grounds before an individual is comfortable to move on to psychotherapy. Subsequently, the said individual will be more emotionally aware, and confident enough to tackle learning skills to better manage their stress.
It may sound like a lot of work. But nobody said that the solution to stress was going to be easy.
For more info on psychotherapy and CBT, please click here.
For more info on The Fragment Room, please click here.