Interview Health

The anxiety pandemic

Trigger warning: this article contains material related to suicide and mental illness. Discretion is advised.

If 2020 was a year of uncertainty and had us taking up safety behaviours to try and ward off COVID-19, 2021 is proving to be far more stressful with the second wave of the pandemic. Age of Anxiety, the third book in the Mindscape series published by Simon and Schuster India, comes at a time when emotional wellness is increasingly being discussed.

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After Young Mental Health and Real Stories of Fighting Depression, this third book is co-authored by Amrita Tripathi and clinical psychologist Kamna Chhibber. Amrita is the founder-editor of The Health Collective India (healthcollective.in).

The book discusses the basics of anxiety, the terminology used, while debunking myths and providing self-care tips. A section of the book, titled ‘COVID-19 and the age of anxiety’, addresses the challenges for those with pre-existing conditions and those who may be experiencing it for the first time.

Amrita Tripathi

Amrita Tripathi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Edited excerpts from an interview with Amrita:

Your book comes at a time when anxiety is being discussed more than ever before. How do you suggest a reader approach the book?

Start with the foreword by Dr Achal Bhagat and then take a beat, read the introduction, which will give a good sense of what to expect from the book, and then maybe a chapter at a time.

Take your time, there’s no rush to read it cover to cover! We have been able to share information on anxiety through different narrative forms — whether it’s from Kamna Chhibber’s perspective as a psychologist, or several contributors’ first person accounts of lived experience, creative writing by Ilina Acharya and Jessica Xalxo, and via interviews. We’ve collected myths and facts, colloquial terms for anxiety and tried to distil a lot of the information in a conversational, accessible way.

Kamna Chhibber speaks
  • Focus on the things that you can control. Follow safety protocols and engage in COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. Be mindful of your own emotional experiences and be willing to discuss what you are going through with those around you. Reach out for support if you feel too overwhelmed.
  • Make a conscious effort to limit information overload to ensure you are well so that you can provide much needed support to those around you. Follow reliable and verified sources to make sure that the information you have is authentic and accurate.
  • If volunteering to coordinate SOS calls and tweets, be watchful of shifts in your own emotional experiences. Being mindful can help you pace yourself better. Get peer or expert supervision to ensure that the ways in which you are handling situations are okay both for the callers as well as for your own well-being.
  • If you are a caretaker for a COVID-19 patient at home: It is easy to fall into a pattern of ignoring what your body and mind need to cope with the distressing experiences. Try and create a schedule for yourself while including some activities that relax and calm you. Even if things are difficult on certain days, make an attempt to prioritise your well-being by finding five minutes for yourself.
  • Staying connected to people who form your support system. Do not hesitate to ask for what you might need in order to feel supported during this time. If you don't have a support system, make an active effort to connect with neighbours, coworkers, family members and acquaintances to build it.
  • Self-care: Indulge in activities that you like, which contribute towards making you feel relaxed and calm. These can range from exercise, cooking, playing games, to indulging in art, music, dance, meditation, or yoga.

At the time of working on this book, what were your thoughts on the mental health issues associated with the pandemic? Can you discuss the difference between the problems last year and this year?

There are so many layers to this question, and so many different experiences to unpack. First off, to acknowledge that we are in a very different position today in 2021 than last year. In March 2020, for example, I felt I was going through an emotional rollercoaster, and couldn’t put my finger on what the experience was all about.

One thing that helped me was doing a course online by Professor Steve Joordens of the University of Toronto Scarborough called ‘Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19’, which broke down some of what was going on in the brain, the body, etc.

A quote from a follow-up interview with Prof Joordens stayed with me, which was, “If you’re not anxious now, you’re not paying attention.” That made me so relieved, hearing from him and other mental health experts, like Dr Soumitra Pathare, who I interviewed for Age of Anxiety — I mean, of course, people will be anxious given the magnitude of the crisis we are facing.

Today, many more of us and our loved ones are grieving, mourning or bereaved. There’s grief, despair, fear, panic, high levels of stress and anxiety. People feel much more desperate and are fighting a battle for survival.

Kamna Chhibber

Kamna Chhibber   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Kamna and others also see people talking about relationships as a stressor, and loss of a job, or the fear of job loss as stressors — there is so much going on during this pandemic, that experts are bracing for an impending crisis to come as well. I hope that we are prepared for that.

What would you like to tell parents of children and young adults who have been homebound for a long duration?

What I’ve been hearing and reading about is that it seems essential to shield your younger kids as much as you can from the doom-scrolling and almost-apocalyptic kind of news all around. Older kids and young adults will need you to address some of their concerns head-on, while being honest about what we’re facing — I don’t think the usual platitudes or ‘things are going to be ok’ will really help.

Above all, there needs to be a safe space to communicate — you might not have the answers (who does?) but you can definitely be there to have the conversation without taking it personally or feeling judged as a parent.

A lot of people want to feel useful, so maybe think of constructive things your kids can do (weekly calls to older relatives or checking in to chat with an old family friend, helping to brainstorm on how to help with fund-raising etc). And parents, ensure you have peer support for yourselves to get through this time, as much as you try to make sure your kids are still in touch with their friends!

The anxiety pandemic

The frontline workers are stretched. We are already seeing signs of doctors’ adverse mental health with the recent suicide. How do you think this segment will be different from people like you and me?

This is such a huge concern and issue — it’s not just extreme burn-out and fatigue, there’s also the concept of secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, guilt, survivor’s guilt, PTSD. Suicide is a huge challenge for both the country and the medical community, and while there are helplines available, the jury’s out on whether that’s enough support.

The helpline volunteers and counsellors themselves would need psychological support. Many stakeholders are aware of the issue — for example, One Future Collective founder Vandita Morarka (a Health Collective contributor) is working on a rehabilitation programme (by crowdsourcing funding) that includes getting peer counselling support to frontline workers.

This crisis is not going away overnight and even as we’re seeing a surge of incredible efforts (volunteers, civil society, mental health advocates, journalists) we need to also ensure that people pace themselves as best they can (easier said than done, especially when we’re talking about life and death), to avoid burning out.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 1:04:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/amrita-tripathi-and-kamna-chhibber-discuss-anxiety-in-the-context-of-covid-19/article34514142.ece

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