A journey inwards
The year 2020 has not just been a year of tragedy and adjustments but also a year of self-discovery. As the pandemic forced us into our homes and self-imposed isolation, it also gave us a vital opportunity to connect and understand our mind, in all its troubling fragility and equally surprising resilience
Riddle me this. What is the one thing that we carry with ourselves everywhere? It helps us make all the conscious and even subconscious decisions in our daily lives. We cannot touch it or see it but always feel it. In fact, it helps us process and feel feelings. We rely on it to help us enjoy happy moments and tide over the unhappy ones. Yet we give it far less importance and invest even lesser time in nurturing it.
Confused as to what am I talking about? I am referring to our minds. Our minds are unique and they make us who we are. Yet we notoriously keep taking it for granted.
In fact, human minds have been studied for centuries, and yet remained mysteriously enigmatic. How is it that each one of us reacts differently to the same stimuli? We all have a set of patterns our minds follow and since our lives are affected by such a myriad range of events, very rarely do we find a single event tying the entire human race into feeling the same pain, suffering, worries and concerns.
That is up until 2020. All this changed when SARS-COV2 made an entry into our lives and the entire world was brought to its knees in front of this invisible infinitesimal virus. We were all literally in the same boat. Tossed, threatened with the tribulations of survival, we all faced fear, worry, sadness, angst, towards a common enemy — the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overnight Google search for phrases like "how do I keep myself happy?", "mental health counselling", "anxiety", "stressed about the pandemic, "how can I feel happy?", became a household phenomenon globally. The first threat was of course to our survival. We all worked together with the basic survival instinct of how do we not get infected. But the focus also came across on how do we maintain our sanity in these tough times?
The pandemic took a toll on the world in terms of lives lost, jobs lost, families set apart, economy affected and more, but it has also become clear that the pandemic has affected our mental health significantly.
Coming to terms
Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation, as "a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community".
But on a more relatable level, we all can identify with the 'lack of' mental health and well-being a lot more easily than the presence of it. The reason behind it is that as a society we are ever so focused since our formative years to know the importance of good aspects of health like brushing and showering daily, trimming our nails and wearing clean ironed clothes. But at no point are we taught how to take care of our minds.
This pandemic did exactly that. It got dialogue started about our minds without the stigma and judgement. People started to take their mental, emotional and psychological well-being much more seriously.
One thing that pandemic has taught us for sure is that we need to mind our minds better. 2020 led us to many realisations regarding our mental health. We realised that mental health is necessary for us all equally: People of all walks of life were affected due to the pandemic and the restrictions. Children, adults, singles, married, living alone, or even with family. No one was spared the mental and emotional effects that came with these tough times. Studies from around the world showed and confirmed these trends.
The lockdown also impressed upon us the fact that mental health is as important as physical health (if not more). The focus of each government message was to keep building on our exercise, diet and self-help. Helplines were launched to help individuals meet with their mental health needs in this time of crisis. Indeed, the lockdown made clear that mental immunity deeply affects our physical immunity. One isn't exclusive of the other. A stressed mind releases the chemical cortisol, that is known to reduce our immunity. A branch of science dedicated to this is given the elaborate title of 'psychoneuroendocrinology'.
But our long-overdue journey inwards did not end here. Along the way, we learnt much else that we will (and should) carry on past this pandemic. For one, our shared suffering helped us related to others in similar circumstances. The fast-paced lives that give us little time to stop, reflect and spend a moment with yourself and your loved ones, were abruptly brought to a screeching halt. Suddenly, we had an opportunity to relax and dream. We all had a list in our life of 'if I ever find time, I would like to do this' and so many managed to rekindle the romance with their passions or rediscover old hobbies.
Most of all, our time in isolation made us realise anew that we are all social animals who crave social interaction, especially those done face to face. Being unable to adequately fulfil our social needs left many of us helpless But for all the things that made us vulnerable, there was also a feeling that we would, as a whole, persevere. We are, after all, creatures who thrive on hope. Whether it be a vaccine or a person, we can always look towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
The new normal
As is the case with much we took for granted, the pandemic forced a shift in the ways we communicate. Social media, already a significant part of our lives before the pandemic became even more central, especially for many of us who were isolating away from loved ones. In many ways, social media platforms became a 'safe harbour' for our lives which had been violently rocked by the merciless waves of the pandemic. But of course, there are many caveats. Social media has and will continue to be a mixed bag with a classic mix-up of the good, the bad and the ugly. For better or worse, the pandemic highlighted these distinct features and effects of social media on our minds, on our relationships and on society as a whole.
Social media helped us in "staying connected". From the #dalgonacoffee to #dontrushchallenge or #passthebrush, #fliptheswitch and those unending list of Tiktok videos (RIP), we found ways to stay entertained.
These trends from around the world helped improve social bonding, eating clean, exercising, and even self-care. Our brains are wired in a way that when we see someone doing the 'same actions' as we do, a set of mirror neurons get activated and leads to a feeling of 'oneness'. This was helpful during the social distancing lockdown days where we all need a sense of connect.
Social media while helping us connect, also gives a strong sense of disconnect. As per the results of a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on media usage across India, there was an 87 per cent increase in social media usage amid lockdown averaging to about Indians spending four hours on Facebook. This over usage and growing sense of need (even dependency) for social media instead with regards to social connections is a warning bell we can ill afford to ignore.
Social media is clearly both a boon and a bane. The issues of social media dependency, spreading of misinformation, hatred, violence can be difficult for some of us to cope up with. Social media jealousy, cyberbullying, cat phishing, ghosting can all impact our mental health silently. Equally, the pandemic reinforced the ability of social media to act as echo chambers as more people struggled with uncertainty and attempted to find a community online The full effects of this increased integration of social media into our lives as a result of this pandemic remains to be seen.
Ultimately, social media usage needs to be monitored for us all. We need to emphasise that it is an evil that we can't live without but we should be able to control our usage and not let it control us. The resulting social media detox movement for mental health is gaining momentum and will continue well into 2021.
We have just stepped into a new year and many of us are already in quest of desired resolutions. Unanimously, without much ado, let's focus on mental health resolutions. Here are a few things we can keep working on:
Normalising mental health by removing the stigma attached to it. We are all basically still struggling with mental health until we normalise it;
Speaking more about mental health disorders and realising they are as real as other medical conditions. Talking openly about mental health problems just as we do about diabetes and hypertension;
Normalising seeking therapy and talking to a psychiatrist if needed;
Addressing our emotions in a wholesome manner;
Saying no to others when it gets overwhelming;
Teaching children from early on to recognise their emotions an express them in a healthy manner;
Fighting off loneliness by being more social.
It took a pandemic for us to realise that our mental health is important. This year let us ensure we prioritise ourselves and self-care.
With 2021 here, we are all embarking upon a new chapter and hoping that life bounces back to normal. With "new normal", one of the biggest lessons to take from the last chapter is that we need to prioritise ourselves. Call it your new year resolution, or your quest to protect yourself from emotional turmoil.
To know if you are practising self-care, answer these questions truthfully:
Eating enough healthy food?
Getting enough sleep?
Content & satisfied with my life?
identifying what makes me feel energetic?
Identifying the biggest hurdle in the way of my mental health?
Able to surround myself with positive and emotionally available individuals?
Able to express myself openly to my loved ones?
Taking care of my mind in different ways?
Learning new skills and growing?
Able to cut down upon my social media usage?
Handling stress well?
Find simple ways to focus on self-care by being kind, mindful of your lifestyle. Self-care doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. In fact it doesn't have to be time-consuming also. It can be incorporated in simple little ways to make you reap more benefits from your life.
Wish you a very happy new year!
The writer is Dr Dutta is a Consultant NeuroPsychiatrist & Life Wellness coach (MD Psychiatry, DNB, MBBS) and expertises in depression, anxiety, OCD and stress Views expressed are personal