From drink, drugs and suicide attempts to being happier and healthier than ever: how one woman found what her soul needed, and is helping others do the same

wrote in a journal, meditation, self-care rituals, sleep, hiking, Muay Thai boxing, plant-based, sleep is also regular, gut health, lower risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Hongkonger Gwen Siu used to live a busy, fast-paced lifestyle, working in some of the city’s most dynamic restaurants and clubs – often putting in 14- to 16-hour days. She was successful, but she was neither happy nor healthy.

“My life was stressful, and to cope, I chain-smoked cigarettes, took drugs and sometimes drank alcohol until I blacked out,” the 33-year-old says. “After I left my job in 2016, I was unemployed for a while. My physical and emotional health deteriorated, and my self-worth was non-existent.”

Overcome with a sense of hopelessness and despair, Siu fell into a dark pit for a couple of years, culminating in a desire to end her life. “On three consecutive days, I tried to take my life using a combination of alcohol and drugs, but when those attempts failed, I took it as a sign that I had to give life another shot.”

She began to see a counsellor to figure out why she “needed to escape from reality”. The therapy helped, but she still didn’t know how to turn her life around. Burned out and desperate for a break, she attended a silent retreat in the Philippines at the end of 2019.

wrote in a journal, meditation, self-care rituals, sleep, hiking, Muay Thai boxing, plant-based, sleep is also regular, gut health, lower risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Siu now does physical activities that she enjoys, like Iyengar yoga. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“The retreat was exactly what my soul needed,” she says. “I did yoga, wrote in a journal, did meditation and learned how to listen to my inner voice. The retreat ended on December 31, and the next day I gave up alcohol and drugs. Gradually, I changed my mindset and started to love myself. I made time for self-care rituals, drew boundaries between work and my personal life, and built new sleep, exercise and diet-related habits.”

Early last year, Siu decided that she wanted to help people transform their lives through better nutrition and lifestyle habits, so she trained to be an integrative nutrition health coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition based in New York. In June 2020, she started health coaching.

Today, she’s happier than she’s ever been and says that her lifestyle contrasts sharply with the one she had before the retreat.

She does physical activities that she enjoys, like Iyengar yoga, hiking and Muay Thai boxing. And, although her diet has been mostly plant-based for more than five years, she’s cut out the junk foods and enjoys more whole fruits and vegetables.

Her sleep is also regular and she feels more rested when she wakes up. Gone are the stimulants, shame and sadness.

wrote in a journal, meditation, self-care rituals, sleep, hiking, Muay Thai boxing, plant-based, sleep is also regular, gut health, lower risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Muay Thai boxing is another activity Siu now does regularly. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“I used to be angry, negative and unpleasant to be around, but now I’m happier, more grateful and more clear-headed,” she explains. “It just goes to show how much our emotional well-being affects our physical health and vice versa.

“When we’re stressed out and sad our gut health takes a hit, when we use stimulants our bodies suffer, and when we’re burned out we sleep poorly and just feel lousy overall.”

Studies show the connection between physical health and happiness. One long-term survey done in Canada, for instance, found that positive affective states like joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment were associated with a 22 per cent lower risk of heart disease, even after risk factors such as age, cholesterol levels and blood pressure were considered. The results were published in May 2010 in the European Heart Journal.

wrote in a journal, meditation, self-care rituals, sleep, hiking, Muay Thai boxing, plant-based, sleep is also regular, gut health, lower risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

One of the habits that Siu has picked up is writing in a journal. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Another study, published in 2008 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, showed that levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, tend to be lower when people are happier. High levels of cortisol are thought to contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

More recently, research from the University of British Columbia in Canada looked at life satisfaction, a key part of well-being, and found that higher life satisfaction was linked to a range of positive health and well-being outcomes, including a 26 per cent reduced risk of mortality, a 12 per cent reduced risk of chronic pain and a 14 per cent reduced risk of insomnia. The results appeared earlier this year in The Milbank Quarterly health-care journal.

People who are physically healthy are more content – one analysis by researchers at Yale University in the United States and Oxford University in England, for example, found that regular exercise boosts mental health more than having more money. This research was published in September 2018 in The Lancet Psychiatry.

According to Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at the Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness in Singapore, happiness is transient while life satisfaction is a long-lasting feeling. However, both are strongly associated with physical well-being, Lim says, and the link goes both ways and is often indirect.

“People who are happy, report life satisfaction and find meaning in life tend to have a better sense of self-worth and are more likely to look after their physical health. And when we’re physically healthy, we’re more likely to engage in meaningful activities, which would improve our life satisfaction. Certain activities, like exercising, can boost one’s physical well-being and bring about a sense of happiness,” Lim says.

“When our physical health is poor or we suffer from illnesses that cause pain, we may experience mental anguish, which ultimately lowers life satisfaction.”

wrote in a journal, meditation, self-care rituals, sleep, hiking, Muay Thai boxing, plant-based, sleep is also regular, gut health, lower risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Dr Lim Boon Leng is a psychiatrist at the Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness in Singapore. Photo: Courtesy of Dr Lim Boon Leng

Conversely, when we’re unhappy and dissatisfied with life, Lim says that we’re less likely to physically care for ourselves. We may exercise less or not at all, skip our annual health checks or neglect to get medical treatment.

“In more severe states of unhappiness, such as depression or when we’re dealing with extreme stress, our immune system may be adversely affected and we may be more susceptible to illness,” he adds.

“It may also be harder to get conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure under control. Unhappiness can lead to either poor appetite and low weight, or comfort eating and obesity. Your sleep may also be compromised. These are all associated with poorer physical health.”

wrote in a journal, meditation, self-care rituals, sleep, hiking, Muay Thai boxing, plant-based, sleep is also regular, gut health, lower risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Siu says that her lifestyle now contrasts sharply with the one she had before the retreat. Photo: Jonathan Wong

While it’s fine to strive for happiness, Lim says it’s more important to live a life that’s meaningful and purposeful. He adds that numerous studies find that this involves helping others, performing kind or generous deeds, and spending quality time with loved ones.

“Interestingly, chasing happiness often leads to dissatisfaction, disappointment and unhappiness, so we should instead aim to find meaning in our lives. A meaningful life will bring moments of joy, but it will also bring tribulations, which teach us important lessons and push us to keep going, adding more meaning to the things we do.”

It’s because our physical health and emotional well-being are so closely intertwined that we have to actively work at both and not take either for granted, says Siu, who, in addition to being a health coach, also works part-time at a tech company.

“I feel empowered knowing that I have direct and complete control over my own well-being, and, as a health coach, it feels great helping others transform their lifestyles and achieve higher levels of happiness and fulfilment.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page

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