Coping Up With Mental Stress: A Talk With The Expert

Have you ever felt yourself imploding to your emotions? There are moments when we fail to recognize what we are going through and decide to keep silent about those emotions because of the stigma of being judged. Every day, we push ourselves harder to overcome those emotions, unmindful of the load we are putting on our mental system. 

Sometimes, it is necessary to slow down and breathe for a second. Saying ‘Yes’ to every other thing and keeping yourself at the bottom of your priority list shall, in turn, affect you and come back to daunt you in your everyday activities. The pandemic has worsened the situation for most of us, with a significant part of our day spent worrying about things out of our dominion. Here is where coping up with the stress and taking a ‘Me’ time becomes necessary. 

In conversation with Vasundharaa Santosh Nair on mental health and coping up with situations of mental emergency, with a highlight on the effects of pandemic and measures to be taken to keep our mind as healthy as our body.

Could you brief us about yourself, your background, and your previous ventures?

I am Vasundharaa Santhosh Nair; I am a Senior Research Fellow and Mental Health Clinician at the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru. In research, I am working in the domain of Brain Infections, while as a clinician, I provide care to various acute to chronic neuropsychiatric conditions. 

I did my Bachelors in Sociology from MOP Vaishnav College for Women, Masters in Social Work from Christ University. I was awarded a Scholarship by the University Grants Commission to do my Ph.D. Worked for a year as a Business Analyst at CGI. Completed MPhil in Psychiatric Social Work under UGC-JRF and then got selected for my Ph.D. under UGC-SRF, which I am currently pursuing.

I am an advisory member at Yellow Club, an organization working towards Mental Health; a Council Member at UP Mental Health Council working towards creative arts therapy and mental health under the WICCI India. I am also a Campaign Specialist of a Wellbeing Campaign at WeMakeChangeIndia, a part of the giant WeMakeChange Global. 

Mental Health Sessions in association with The Yellow Club

What are the early signs of deteriorating mental health? 

Mental Health affects thinking, feeling and behaving. One needs to have a check on themselves if they have :

  1. feelings of anger, irritation, apathy 
  2. difficulty in concentration
  3. anxiety attacks
  4. headaches 
  5. tiredness 
  6. teeth grinding
  7. muscle tension
  8. skin irritations
  9. stomach problems
  10. decreased sex drive 

In crux, have a check if there is a change in your personal care, appetite, sleep, social and working life. Any change in these and becoming a pattern should be the first point to check. 

How can we check our mental health? How do we know if it is a mental illness or just overreacting?

Stress is an experience that every living being goes through. Hans Selye, in 1936 explains the Human Function Curve, which I believe is the competent manner of understanding one’s mental health and knowing if you are okay or not okay. It states that any stress is good stress until the time it exists and maintains in the comfort zone where one can manage themselves using their established coping strategies. But the moment the zone is breached, “The Hump” is created, resulting in the fall in the curve with the stages of fatigue, exhaustion, ill-health, and eventually resulting in a breakdown. This differentiation helps an individual or their near and dear ones to know if they are dealing with the crisis or are prone to the same. 

What steps need to be taken when people realize that they are suffering from prolonged sadness or loss of interest in activities that interested them before?

There are some activities that each of us can and should do :

  1. Do not discount one’s feelings – If you realize that there is a difficulty, come and speak to someone about your mental health. Hence, it is essential to you don’t discount your feelings, take them seriously, and talk to someone about them. 
  2. Establish a routine for yourself – Try establishing away and reward yourself when you complete the routine correctly for some time. 
  3. Try talking – Remember speaking to someone is an excellent help as it’ll help in reducing the pressure and ease the burden. 
  4. Do not stigmatize yourself –  It takes a lot to voice out concerns; hence never think that you are weak or self stigmatize yourself, go ahead and be bold getting better health. 
  5. Encourage yourself to get help – It is challenging; a feeling of shame may also affect one or the people around us, which prohibits seeking help. But if things are falling apart, one should consider getting professional assistance. 
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask about feelings –  Check up on your friends and/or close ones who are undergoing therapy or have a mental health concern by looking at it as an opportunity to understand them and the situation.   

What are the few methods you would suggest to control momentary anger and anxiety?

A few techniques that one can use are :

  1. Stop, ask, and Reflect-when you feel that the behavior is new, stop yourself, ask yourself, and reflect on the action. This will help in understanding the rationale of the behavior.
  2. Take Five – When you feel that anger/anxiety is increasing, take those 5 minutes and try to calm yourself.
  3. Have a realistic relationship – When you have enough support systems to understand and support you, it’ll become easier to speak about what one is going through in those times. 
  4. Break the Pattern –  If you feel there is a pattern found in the moments of anger/anxiety in the form of triggers, try to break that pattern.
  5. Maintain a diary – Write about the times when you have those episodes, what starts them, what do you do to cope with them, and your concerns, if any. 

Could you suggest some activities one can be engaged in to cope up with stress?

There can be a couple of activities one can do:

  1. Educate oneself and people around you about the possible reactions to stress
  2. Practice the Relaxation Exercise – Sitting Meditation and simple relaxation techniques could be followed.
  3. Participate in virtual group activities – storytelling, singing, games, coloring, etc. 
  4. Try to get back to a routine in the “New Normal.”
  5. In case the above does not help, seek professional care and support

What are the reasons why people tend to be more vulnerable to being a victim of mental illness in the present than it had been a year ago, with the possibility of virtual meet-ups still being an option?

The pandemic resulted in closed borders, limited travels, economic crisis, childlessness, sudden shifts, isolation at homes, alleged intimate partner violence, and fear of uncertainty. All of these have been the reason for the increase in mental health concerns. Virtual meet-ups have been an option only to a minority and not to all. And even for the ones who had the privilege to have this option, a sense of monotony increases their chances of having mental health concerns.  

Could you suggest a few books and/or movies that can provide a good overview of the topic and help people realize the condition they’re in?

Manichitrathazhu, A Beautiful Mind, Black Swan, Taare Zameen Par, etc., are some of the movies that I like. Fahad Faazil’s movies, where he has given so much importance to mental health, are another that I would recommend understanding as well. 

Some books: Everything Here Is Beautiful – Mira T. Lee, Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life- Charita Cole Brown, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety -Sarah Wilson are some of the recommendations. 

Online sessions with The Yellow Club

As a mental health expert, what are the take-home message you would like to give to the school and college-going students missing out on most of their campus life and fun academic activities?

“In a volatile and dynamic world, be ready for change. Always look at it as an opportunity to learn rather than resisting it due to fear of failure.” –  Jerry Connor. 

Youth are the leaders of today, so challenging situations may be present but make this an opportunity for yourself. You will be the generation that will have adapted to the complete T in this era of the pandemic. As leaders of tomorrow, I leave you with the following: 

  1. Believe that you don’t always need someone to show you the path- Be your own North Star! 
  2. There are no criteria to be a leader – intrinsic motivation with your experience makes you golden, have the confidence that you shall pass through this. 
  3. Think about the future but live in the present – prepare yourselves in terms of skills, techniques, and strategies for the future but always take a day at a time because, at that moment, your decision decides your further directions. 

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