100 expats: Mental health sage

Mithu Storoni, pictured, settled in Luxembourg in 2020 but has been familiar with the country for 20 years Mike Zenari

Mithu Storoni, pictured, settled in Luxembourg in 2020 but has been familiar with the country for 20 years Mike Zenari

The grand duchy is one of the few countries that takes pride in the fact that a significant proportion of its population--47.4% as of 2020--is made up of non-nationals.

For its April edition, Delano Magazine profiled 100 expats. Here is our cover interview and links to the sections where you can find all 100 profiles.

It is less than ten months since UK eye surgeon and neuroscience researcher, and now best-selling author, Mithu Storoni settled down in Luxembourg, though she has been familiar with the grand duchy for close to 20 years.

“Stress has always been a very fuzzy word… It’s an abstract ghost hanging around,” says Mithu Storoni. She explains that some ten years ago, because stress didn’t use to be measurable--a quantifiable measure that could correlate to performance, to employee dropout, to productivity, to innovation-- it was always ignored.

In her book, Stress Proof, Storoni presents what psychologist and writer Scott Barry Kaufman calls “cutting-edge strategies for improving resilience, mental performance, and focus”. These include long-term solutions like morning exercise, deep breathing and even drinking tea. But perhaps the most significant way to de-stress from an immediate situation is to launch yourself into an enjoyable but absorbing activity that demands your full attention--even playing a game on your phone. That will prevent you from replaying the scene on loop, as Storoni puts it.

Arriving in Luxembourg from Hong Kong in the middle of the pandemic, Mithu Storoni says that she noticed many similarities between the two places, including enthusiasm for new ideas and innovation. For instance, in the response of small businesses and startups to shortages of masks, disinfectant and PPE. “People didn't just sit there on their hands and think, ‘oh, we have a shortage of masks’. There was this energy, this kindred spirit… to just do things and not depend on other people. I find that to be a parallel.”

She has been familiar with Luxembourg for some 20 years, when she first visited the family of her then boyfriend, now husband. Like many young people who discover Luxembourg for the first time, she noticed the different pace of life and the limited choice to socialise and have fun. On the other hand, the community spirit and warmth was something she immediately appreciated.

Back then, in the early 2000s, Storoni was a medical student at Cambridge University’s St. John’s College. She had been attracted to medicine because, she says, “it’s one of the most fulfilling ways to make a difference. Every case, every diagnosis, is a puzzle that feels exhilarating to solve.” Her interest in “the intricate ways our brains are wired” was initially sparked by her father, who also had a background in the field, feeding her little bits of interesting information as she was growing up.

At Cambridge an inspirational supervisor gave his students a book on the visual cortex. “It was the most fascinating book I’d read for a long time and it propagated me towards vision and neuroscience.” An opportunity to work with Nobel laureate David Hubel also inspired Storoni to pursue further study in the then rare field of neuro-ophthalmology, which led to her taking a PhD with “another incredible mentor”, Gordon Plant, at University College London.

The move to Hong Kong, where her now husband had landed a job, forced a shift in focus as local regulations did not allow her to practise medicine. “I had to be adaptable. The best thing about the human brain, the most extraordinary thing, is it is adaptable. It must adapt to change. So, it is not the strongest, but actually the most adaptable that survive.”

Her own personal situation led Storoni to take up hot yoga as a way of investing into looking after herself. But, ever the neuro-ophthalmologist, she also started studying her own eye pupil as the yoga helped reduce her stress levels. “Study of the pupil sounds very niche, but they are literally a window to the nerve network that coordinates your stress response. The smallest fluttering gives you a wealth of information.”

She had already studied the effect stress can have in relapses of patients with chronic conditions. Delving further into more than 500 research papers written about stress eventually led to Storoni writing her book, Stress Proof.

The rest, as they say, is history. Rave reviews and her insightful yet accessible approach to public speaking have made Storoni the go-to stress management expert for international media and at conferences.

Nowadays, Storoni’s attention has been grabbed by the way the brain is adapting to the acceleration of technological advancement in everything from eye surgery techniques to fintech and even aspects of government. “We are moving so fast… we are validating the prescience of people like Peter Drucker, who said, back in the 1950s, that in 50 years’ time, most of our work would move from the skill of the hands, to the brain, to the skill of the mind. Today, machines mine data and generate predictions but they can’t make complex decisions. The load on our cognitive machinery is greater than ever before.” The challenge, she says, is that we are products of the generation before us and we are still adapted to an older way of doing things--human evolution has not continued at the same pace as digital innovation.

“The father of information theory, Claude Shannon, said, ‘information is the resolution of uncertainty’ but we’re living in a peculiar time where there is boundless information, and endless uncertainty. The burden falls on the mind. Right now, my interest lies in finding solutions for keeping mental wellbeing in check without changing the status quo. A healthy mind is as pivotal to navigating this digital world as the hands of a sculptor are to his craft.”

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