How can you take care of your mental health during a pandemic that brings fresh images of death to your screen every day? What are some practical strategies to keep yourself grounded as you support loved ones, keep track of the news, or amplify requests for oxygen cylinders on social media? How to attend to your own needs with compassion? Apart from reaching out to a professional, there are many other things that you can do.
Kamna Chhibber, a clinical psychologist at the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, and co-author of Age of Anxiety (2021), says, “There is a lot of misinformation and fake news going around. This heightens the anxiety of people who absorb it day in and day out. It is important to be discerning, to limit one’s exposure, and to engage only with credible sources.”
The fear of missing out, also called FOMO, makes people spend many hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other online platforms to stay abreast of the latest happenings. There is a strong desire to know about statements made by political leaders, deaths in various states of India, the pricing of vaccines, celebrities who gave money to fundraisers, etc.
In her book Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear (2020), clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta compares the desire to “catch up” and “know it all” to an itch. She writes, “We all know that, realistically, there is no way to catch up on everything. It’s an illusion we are all chasing.” Gathering information also gives people an anchor in the middle of uncertainty.
Dr Prashant Chaudhari, an assistant professor at the department of psychiatry, Sion Hospital, recommends going on “a digital diet” so that information overload does not take a toll on your mental health. This recommendation is “not about closing your eyes to reality”. It has to do with exercising your choice about what to consume “so that you do not get lost”.
According to him, it is advisable to keep the mind active and engaged so that it is not paralysed by the fear of what might happen. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution because individuals have varied interests and personalities. He says, “Some people find solace in God, some like to pursue their hobbies, some prefer spending time with their kids.”
Is it alright to experience joy when others are suffering?
This guilt-ridden question weighs heavily on the conscience of those who feel that their grief is not as valid and intense as those who have experienced death in the family, lost a job, or fallen sick themselves. When they take part in enjoyable activities, they judge themselves for being “bad people”.
Therapist Sadaf Vidha, founder of Guftagu Psychotherapy and Counselling Services, says, “There is a lot of pressure to be active in organizing resources on the ground, so people who are unable to join in feel that they are not doing enough. It is okay to focus on your rest and recovery, and to simply manage your day in a way that is less damaging to others.”
How to keep calm and go about the day to day
Arjun Khera, a counsellor and drama and movement therapist, has observed that “a lot of people find doodling, exercising, drawing and being close to nature quite beneficial because it brings their awareness to the present moment.” They find respite from feeling overwhelmed. If they establish a routine, they have something to look forward to and “a sense of control.”
Clinical psychologist Pragya Lodha, programme director, mental health, One Future Collective, believes that any nurturing activity – be it cooking, taking care of plants or chanting mantras – can help individuals with their “digital detox.” She suggests demarcating specific pockets of time during the day for social media so that they do not lose out on social and emotional connections. “Setting boundaries is a significant part of self-care,” she says.
Lodha uses the term “infodemic” to emphasize the negative effects of taking in too much information, much of which is not simply factual but highly politicized.
Vidha lays emphasis on being there for each other rather than being sucked into “the wormhole of politics”. She says, “Political analysis about our leaders can wait, else it will create too much helplessness.”
Social justice and mental health
It is hard to disengage from political analysis. Deepa Pawar, founder director of Anubhuti Charitable Trust, which works on community-based mental health initiatives with Adivasi and Bahujan groups, migrant workers and nomadic tribes in Maharashtra, points out the need to recognize social justice as an important component of mental well-being so that the individual is not blamed for something that the system must be held accountable for.
She says, "You cannot expect someone who does not have clean drinking water or food at home to experience peace of mind by simply listening to music, registering for a course or watching a film. These recommendations are for the privileged who do not need to think of day-to-day survival.” Her approach shows how mental health is linked to material conditions.
The people that she works with need money to buy essential items and an assurance of employment. Pawar says, “When they do not have the money for sanitary napkins, how will they invest in buying masks and sanitizers? The government needs to step in and support them."Dr Chaudhari adds, “Loss of livelihood cannot be addressed by asking people to remain calm. They need aid from the government to navigate this crisis.”