For some time now, social media users have been marking the beginning of each month by heaving collective sighs. “What? It’s September already?!”, many people exclaimed at the beginning of this month, trying to come to terms with the fact that we only have four months left in the year, much of which we have spent inside at home.
A college classmate whose workout videos on Instagram are something that I get inspiration from, albeit while only lying down, posted one day that she had trouble waking up for her workouts. This sense of feeling a little ‘off’, like we are unlike ourselves, has been affecting many of us and shows up in different ways — several friends have told me they were having trouble sleeping or keeping up with activities that they otherwise loved. While many of us may not be able to put a finger on exactly what is bothering us, all of us have had days when we haven’t felt quite like ourselves. Mental health experts HuffPost India spoke to say these feelings range from loneliness, grief, loss, trauma and much more.
“I think we are all experiencing a ‘mass trauma’ which is impacting our mental health. We are witnessing, experiencing, feeling and trying to process so much happening across the world, simultaneously at once,” said Shaina Vasundhara Bhatia, a psychotherapist and counselling psychologist based in Gurugram.
And while we are all trying to adapt to the “new normal”, the constant threat of Covid-19 is still very real, and so are the tanking economy and prospect of job losses. Everything we knew to be “normal” and had taken for granted — meeting friends, holiday plans, hopes of studying abroad, attending the wedding of a loved one, or even just being in the same space with people you love and spend time — may seem out of reach now.
Bhatia said that we’re not wired to be in the constant state of “hyper vigilance” that we’re experiencing right now, which is throwing us off. For some others, she added, dormant concerns that they had may now be surfacing, due to the many triggers the pandemic had brought along.
For people whose home spaces are not safe, the pandemic could also mean being stuck with their abusers. It can also be upsetting to not get a break from parents or partners who don’t understand us. Being confined at home has forced us to pay attention to things that we wouldn’t earlier and has shifted our perspectives, which can sometimes be a difficult thing to experience. “Our views of ourselves, our families, our friends and life as we know it have gained multilayered perspectives. For lots of people, being stuck at home with their families has led to a deterioration in their mental health, helping them gain perspective that something doesn’t feel safe or right in that environment. For others, they have gained perspective on their jobs and how they feel about them and/or how job loss has impacted the person. But for everyone, we’ve had to face ourselves. I don’t think there will be a going back to normal life, because what’s normal for us has changed. It’s what we do with these perspectives that’s going to be put to test,” said Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counsellor Rhea Gandhi.
This has been especially tough for young adults wh, said Delhi-based psychotherapist Vaishali Rathore.
“A lot of college students have had mental health breakdowns because suddenly their whole life is confined to a phone,” she added.
For young adults dependent on their parents, it also means they are often unable to make decisions about their own lives. “There were people who felt safer outside their homes, like when they went for evening walks, meeting people for work or just being able to talk to a friendly neighbour or play with neighbourhood dogs,” said Rathore.
How do we know if we’re not ok?
The experts told HuffPost India that whenever we don’t feel like ourselves and struggle to do what we are used to doing, it’s likely we’re not doing ok. However, these so-called signs differ from person to person.
Rathore said, “When you start avoiding calls, when you start avoiding contact with people, you start withdrawing or isolating yourself—when this usually happens we think it’s just a phase, but it is a red flag that needs to be addressed.”
She said when daily activities such as eating, sleeping the hours that we sleep or logging into work seem distressing, those are usually indicators of our mental health.
In short — anything from feeling unlike your usual self to being unable to keep up with your own measure of “normal” could be a sign that you’re not feeling all right.
“At any given point when we’re feeling like we’re not okay, acknowledging that therapy could help no matter how big or small the issue, is a great step to take.”
How do we make ourselves feel better?
The experts also shared their advice on what we must do to get out of the unease we have been experiencing. Here’s what they suggested:
The experts warned that one must not wait for the worst to happen before seeking help. Gandhi said, “If you are considering seeking support for your psychological health, you should do it. It’s always better to seek help earlier rather than later when things get worse and worse, which makes the need feel urgent. Therapy is not a quick fix and takes time and it is easier to deal with distress when it is just beginning. We can’t leave it for the last minute.”
And no, your morning yoga session doesn’t count as therapy. Founder of psychologist and founder of Mithra Trust, Bhairavi Prakash, said, “At any given point when we’re feeling like we’re not okay, acknowledging that therapy could help no matter how big or small the issue, is a great step to take. Also, there are those who engage in therapeutic activities like drawing, dancing, yoga etc that say this is their therapy. It’s really important then to differentiate between what is therapeutic and what is therapy. Therapeutic activities are great tools for self-expression and self-reflection, many people engage in these as part of therapy even. However, only therapy i.e engaging with a qualified mental health specialist with a specific goal, constitutes therapy.”
Regular therapy can often seem out of reach for many because of financial constraints. But Rathore said that touching base with a mental health professional even once a month can help. “I understand that in India, for families to create a mental health budget is unconventional, so even if one can touch base with a therapist once a month, and focus on some grounding and self-awareness, it would be a great way forward to break from this lull,” she said.
Know that you’re not alone
It can be challenging just to learn to live with this feeling. Gandhi said while she did not believe in a “one size fits all approach” to help people cope, knowing we’re all in this together could provide comfort.
″All I can say is that we’re all in this together. All our reactions and problems are unique but everyone has been impacted by this pandemic and it might be comforting to know it’s not just you,” she said.
Acknowledge your feelings
When we don’t feel our best, a lot of us often try to fight the so-called “negative” feeling. The experts said that we must first learn to acknowledge these feelings and allow ourselves to feel them.
“I think the first step to allowing some sense of whatever we subjectively understand as ‘normalcy’ to organically set in our lives is to acknowledge that every now and then you will feel that everything is ‘shit’ and it ‘absolutely sucks completely’. Allow yourself to sulk and brood,” Bhatia said.
When we stepped out every day before the pandemic, our brains were exposed to much more stimuli. This isn’t the case anymore. Rathore suggested we create novelty in our lives to stimulate our brains.
“You need to ensure that you are either learning a new language or watching a film in a new language, or trying something new to cook. That needs to be every day,” she said.
Know it’s ok not to be ok
We are often told it’s best to remain positive and happy all the time. But we need to learn that it’s ok not to always feel your best.
Prakash said, ”First of all, name that feeling, if you can’t name it, just say I am not feeling ok. And it’s ok to not be ok because there is a huge thing of toxic positivity that is perpetuated by social media. What I mean by toxic positivity is the tendency to automatically whitewash emotions.”
Prakash said that while we have been taught to categorise feelings such as anger and jealousy or sadness as “negative”, we need to let such notions go. “To be ok with not being ok is to acknowledge that it’s ok to have feelings that we’re uncomfortable with, that we don’t know what to do with.”
Create ‘safety pockets’
Pre-pandemic, all of us had our own ways of unwinding, be it after work or on weekends, such as hanging out with friends or travelling. Bhatia encouraged looking for alternatives that could help keep us anchored.
“We all have places or people in our lives that anchor us and make us feel safe. We all need these safe pockets in life that keep us afloat in the ocean of chaos. Make sure that you have healthy safe pockets,” she said.
Acknowledge that ‘Covid is still very real’
India has now opened up almost fully with metros running and malls open. But the fear of Covid is still pretty much present. Prakash said we must acknowledge that.
“There is a false sense of normalcy that has returned, where people are going out, they are socialising or meeting others. It may look like life is back on track, but it’s not,” she said and added, “Covid is still very real, the impact that it has on us we don’t acknowledge.”
Create work/life boundaries
With most of us still working from home, everything may seem like a blur. When did work end? Where does life begin? Bhatia said these boundaries get blurred “physically, mentally and emotionally”. To help ease that a little, Bhatia suggested, “Create separate physical work spaces so that once work is over, you can transition back into your home/personal life space.”
If you don’t have the physical space to do this, then consider adopting a small ritual, like a walk or a cup of tea, to mark the end of your work day.
Practice self-soothing techniques
Be it giving yourself a head massage, drinking a cup of hot tea or taking a warm bath, self-soothing activities of your choice, can help calm the mind Rathore said.
Let the good feelings wash over you
And while we’re trying to acknowledge our feelings, we must hold onto our feelings of hope too.
“When you can, keep the hope and faith alive. This year has felt nothing short of an ongoing-never-ending impending sense of doom and gloom with a surge of existential crisis coming to the surface every once in a while, every time we take a round around the block of existence. If you’re feeling good about something or even hopeful and optimistic, let it wash over you. Life is a balance of allowing yourself to feel all the feelings across the spectrum. Some days will feel hopeless and then some days you will see a glimmer of hope. Hold on to that,” Bhatia said.