HEALTH: 3 steps to nurture your mental wellbeing during a crisis

Illustration: Courtesy Sonaksha Iyengar

The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown has left many of us feeling out of balance, scared and anxious. These stresses can manifest very differently between individuals; at times, causing us to ignore the need to pause, process and reboot. We spoke with counselling psychologist Zankhana Joshi of Tatvamasi to understand how to spot signs of mental unrest within ourselves and others, and some simple strategies to cope in this challenging period.

01.  Acknowledge the Signs

Pandemic-related stress is most likely to be experienced as feelings of fear, anxiety, restlessness, agitation, confusion and isolation. However, when not expressed, it can manifest as physical symptoms such as a heaviness or rigidity in the body, aches and pains, compromised hormonal functioning and a lowered immunity.

A healthy way to process emotion, explains Zankhana, is to acknowledge our genuine feelings and fully experience them, “taking on the role of a witness” until they are exhausted.

We’re all experiencing a collective loss of life as we knew it, and “loss needs to be grieved,” she says. She admits acknowledgment requires much courage, especially when surrounded by people who are in denial of the stress induced by the situation.


02. Manage Overstimulation

The COVID-19 lockdown has led to a significant jump in social media consumption across India as people turn to the digital space for news, entertainment and social engagement. Referring to the overdose of pandemic positivity content online, Zankhana cautions against toxic positivity; i.e. focussing on the optimistic side of things and rejecting anything that may trigger negativity. “In a way, that fake positive takes away my authentic experience which I'm suppressing inside me,” she says. Here, she offers some simple but effective strategies to cope with digital overstimulation:

  • Stay current, but don't obsess over the news: There is an overload of information available on the online, including anxiety-inducing fake news that we don’t necessarily have the capacity to differentiate between at the moment. Zankhana says, “You don’t have to completely cut off because not knowing is another form of anxiety. Decide on a time once or twice a day to check for major announcements and updates.”

  • Take a breath: Whenever you feel triggered, take a moment to close your eyes and practise deep breathing. “When we are anxious, our breath becomes shallow and short. The way to reverse that is to take deeper breaths, that will require me to practice to come into my presence,” says Zankhana adding that a change in the pace of breathing can help shift your state of mind.

  • Get moving: “A still body holds a lot of emotions; a moving body is healing itself,” says Zankhana. She explains that movement, via yoga, dance therapy and exercise in general, is one way for our bodies and minds to release emotion. A host of fitness coaches and companies are offering complimentary online sessions to motivate people stay in shape during the lockdown.

  • Connect with your tribe: Zankhana encourages staying connected with family and friends to feel socially supported. Beyond everyday conversations, she cites examples of clients who engage in virtual activities like family quizzes, board games and even birthday parties. These little acts, she says, add meaning to your day.

  • Make space for me-time: A little daily introspection goes a long way in honing our ability to remain aware and acknowledge the current state of things. Journaling, listening to music, meditation, painting, dancing are a few activities that help us check in with our inner feelings. “The objective should be to connect with yourself… [For instance,] it’s not about good or bad painting; it's about expression and letting what I'm feeling come out,” says Zankhana.


03. Find the Right Support

The coronavirus pandemic underscores a general need to nurture our mental health. Therapy isn’t the only way to do so, clarifies Zankhana who says the path to mental wellness begins with self-work. While explaining when to reach out professional help, she makes the distinction between illness and wellness. In case of the former, the severity of difficulties hampers your day-to-day functioning; with the latter, you may need occasional expert guidance navigating a bottleneck in your self-work practice.

The path to mental wellness begins with self-work.

The present circumstances can be especially hard on those with mental health illnesses as well as their caregivers. “Luckily a lot of psychiatrists have moved mountains to make e-prescriptions available so those with mental illnesses can get their medication. People do have access to psychologists and are doing online sessions. Support does exists, albeit virtually instead of physically.”   

The most quality mental healthcare is expensive, there are options across budget segments. Zankhana points to mental health experts like herself who collaborate with non-profit organizations to offer therapy for as low as Rs.100 a session. In wake of the coronavirus pandemic, mental wellbeing services like The Alternative Story have initiated support systems via online listening spaces and webinars.

Zankhana Joshi is a Mumbai-based counselling psychologist and dance movement therapist who offers closed-group listening spaces and circles.

Look out for our next piece on managing financial anxiety amidst a pandemic.Coming up soon.