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Learnings

Mental Health – The power of vulnerability

Let me admit. I have gone through episodes of mild depression and instances of intense anxiety over the past decade. There were days when nothing seemed right, and there were days when I pushed myself so hard that I found it difficult to cope. I didn’t ever take anti-depressants, but mindfulness practices, support from family and friends and a few other tips helped me come out much stronger on the other side. As we go through one of the worst challenges humanity has seen in decades, it is important to be mindful about mental health, not only for yourself but also for others. I would like to share some practical tips that strongly helped me and are still helping me!!

It’s okay to be vulnerable!!

|| जगी सर्व सुखी असा कोण आहे. विचारे मना तूचि शोधूनी पाहे. मना त्वाची रे पूर्व संचित केले. तया सारिखे भोगणे प्राप्त झाले ||

Sant Ramdas

This is an excerpt from the works of Sant Samarth Ramdas called “Manache Shlok”. Samarth Ramdas was a noted 17th century saint and spiritual poet of Maharashtra, India. He is most remembered for his Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism) text Dasbodh.

My personal interpretation : once we understand that our feelings are a consequence of our conscious and subconscious thoughts and actions, it becomes easier to deal with them.

Do not consume or spread unconscious lies in order to protect your mental health

It was also a revelation to me that sometimes we unconsciously communicate lies about ourselves. Most of us suffer from optimism bias. We tend to share or consume more positive aspects of our lives. As a result we believe that other people’s lives are better than that of our own! This induces anxiety. In addition, Social media also fuels it really hard. During such times, what we need to do is muster courage and not bottle up our emotions, we need to share them instead.

Vulnerability is a superpower.

It’s okay to be vulnerable. In fact it’s powerful to be vulnerable. A few famous celebrities such as Deepika Padukone, Selena Gomez, Princess Diana, Prince Harry have openly talked about their depression battle. You can also talk to a friend, your partner or a parent, or your teacher or a mentor. Tell them that you are feeling low, and ask them for help. Bestselling author Brené Brown has an amazing TED talk as well as a book titled “The Power of Vulnerability”. She says, “it takes courage to be vulnerable, by being vulnerable you are opening yourself up to the world around you and allowing yourself to be in touch with your most authentic self”. According to Brené, this is how you can have a happy and fulfilling life.

mental health
Best horizon views are wide open!!

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.”

Brené Brown

Understand the most common causes of depression and anxiety

Depression is way more common than you think. WHO suggests that depression is the single biggest cause of disability (7.5% of all disability days). It also estimates that approximately 264 million people are currently suffering from depression worldwide!! There are however some common reasons for depression. Understanding them makes it easier to be mindful about them and potentially even avoid going into a depression.

Loneliness

Extended periods of loneliness makes you twice as likely to be depressed. This is concerning during a pandemic. We need to seek and maintain social connections – calls, video conferencing, or just going for a walk or meeting people (whilst following social distancing) should keep loneliness at bay. We should give special consideration to elderly, and technology can play a vital role.

Toxic Work

When you are at work, and you don’t have control over your performance or future, you are likely to be depressed. We have to have honest conversations at work to avoid this, staying silent is much more detrimental in the long run.

Lack of contact with nature

If you are not in touch with nature, if you haven’t seen sunshine for long, it can affect your mental health. Nature has special healing powers – do gardening, go for a walk in the grass and try to “touch” the grass by walking bare feet for a while. Look at the night sky and soak it in!! Wake up early and watch sunrise, or simply adore colours of the evening sky when the sun sets. You can connect with nature in so many ways – this will help keep your mental health in good shape!

Unresolved emotions

These are the major cause of anxiety or depression. Sudden loss of loved one, or turbulence in a relationship, failure, an undesired job can cause anxiety. Just being more self-aware of your unresolved emotions and confronting them should help in these circumstances. There may be times when it doesn’t help, in which case don’t think twice before seeking medical help.

Physiological factors

Poor diet, poor sleep, substance abuse, lack of exercise, are also too common enemies of good mental health. I would like to call out exercise and diet in particular – get a smart band / mood diary and measure your sleep and mood on the days on which you eat well and sleep well and you exercise!! See for yourself – because often “my Mum told me that” is not enough.

Genetics

Some people are more pre-disposed to mental illness than others. Now you cannot change what you were born with (at least not yet) but if you are mindful of all of the above, perhaps you could make a difference to your quality of mental health – this is for sure.

It’s time we shed the stigma associated with mental health

It’s NOT okay to ask someone who is suffering from depression to “cheer up”. If you cannot help, offer a chat, or simply say I may not appreciate what you are going through but is there anything I can do? A person can be healthy otherwise yet sometimes suffer a physical ailment. Similarly, mental illness doesn’t mean a person is mentally unfit as a whole.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”

Marie Curie

When the world is showing unprecedented signs of dogma, hate, discrimination, racism, and despair, we need to stay more vigilant than ever. Our self-awareness and our attitudes towards mental illness can actually yield a healing hand towards a society that probably needs it the most.

Do you have a valuable experience to share? Please do take a minute to comment below.

Categories
Experiences

The story of joyous blackouts

I assume, few people in the developed world are familiar with the concept of blackouts.

Human brain is quite the genius! Some sights and smells can magically trigger decades old memories in vivid detail; sort of like biological virtual reality!

joyous blackouts
Open flames have magical qualities

So! Last Sunday, the smell of a burning candle magically took me deep down the memory lane. I was a teenager in a typical suburban family. As some of you may know, this time of the year reckons start of the Monsoon season. Especially in western parts of India. Weather changes in a day, from scorching red hot sun to torrential thunderstorms. Many years ago, blackouts in parts of cities were common; especially as the distribution company sought to insure themselves from the storm.

Such evenings would start with  a majestic roaring of the heavy dark clouds. We knew that a thunderstorm followed by a blackout was on its way. The power would go out like clockwork in a few minutes. Me and my sister would race to see who lights the candles in the house. We also had a Kerosene lamp that would burn with a distinctive smell that I love till date! All of a sudden, the TV would stop. All the background sounds of electric appliances would fall silent. Only thing you could hear was nature – cracking bolts of thunder and the rain. I vividly remember that we stopped doing what we were doing and gathered around the kerosene lamp. Just the 4 of us. Me, my sister and our parents.

We never truly appreciated it, but the time showed an unusual quality of slowing down on such joyous blackouts!

We would intently listen to stories, talk with each other like nothing else mattered. Thankfully, there were no cell phones at the time, even though I always thought ringing of our landline phone during a blackout was nothing short of a miracle. Not once do I remember complaining about the power cuts, unless of course it was during a cricket match! The blackouts lasted a few minutes and sometimes more, but when they were over, everyone went back to their business with a surreal sense of satisfaction!

Why all the nostalgia? Because the blackouts story really makes me think about our present day surroundings and the concept of mindfulness. Let me explain. Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahnemann explains beautifully in his book “Thinking fast and slow” that the human brain has two distinctive personas.

System 1 and system 2. System 1 performs instinctive or well learnt behaviours without spending much mental energy; for instance, driving – you really don’t have to calculate the angle of incidence of an approaching vehicle to figure out that there will be a collision – you just know! On the contrary system 2 is about applying a conscious deeper mental effort, for instance if I ask you to calculate the time it will take for an object to fall from the Eiffel Tower – you will think. This often involves storing some information in your temporary memory and then manipulating it in order to come to a result. A lot of studies have been carried out on system 1 and system 2. Any details though would be way out of scope of this already long post.

The crux of it is that your brain has a really finite “slow-thinking” capacity, and the more you exhaust it the more likely you are to make cognitive judgement errors.

Google mindfulness. By definition, it asks us to step back and reflect – to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings. I have a theory (based on the story above) that it has become increasingly challenging for us to practice mindfulness because of the information overload. Think about it, you have everything literally screaming for your attention. You wake up and you need to decide whether you want a skinny cappuccino or a latte, you need to open that dreadful device (I am telling you it is the worst offender in this context) your cell phone! You have a thousand notifications waiting from ten thousand apps that you have to think about, respond to.

Imagine how much precious and finite mental energy those WhatsApp chats and meaningless Facebook scroll down gestures take. Then you come to work and are overloaded with a further army of attention seekers. E-mails, messengers, meetings (yes!). You come home and are faced with the same dilemma, with 30 news channels and you need to spend precious slow-thinking time wondering what to watch. Don’t even get me started on Netflix. Do you get the point?

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Mindfulness is about being in the present

Naturally, I feel like we had more mental capacity to practice mindfulness before the advent of satellite television, and modern technology including cell phones.

Yes, its not about blackouts its about mindfulness – use the technology, don’t let technology use you.

Nevertheless  a lot of things can actually help. Meditation, Yoga,  learning to switch off before you hit the bed, and more generally switching off push notifications on your mobile as soon as you think they are becoming a useless distraction. Breaks from the hustle bustle of your city and routine are welcome too of course.

After all we need to be mindful that, the best things about life are our memories and experiences and they are almost always not digital!

A blackout, anyone?

@abhinandanshah