Sarita and Surabhi went to the same school, shared the same group of friends, and had identical dreams about career and family. Today, Sarita is married and has an academically brilliant daughter. She is financially secure, managing her own boutique, and enjoys good health. Yet, she is depressed and undergoing therapy.
On the other hand, Surabhi is diabetic. She has had several miscarriages, and is not as financially sound as she would like to be. Nevertheless, she is optimistic about life, and often gives pep talks to Sarita. Inference: unhappiness is not necessarily a result of external circumstances.
Rohit and Prakash are colleagues in a cramped office. They report to the same hot-headed boss, and draw the same salary. They also have similar financial obligations in the family. Rohit has an ulcer and frequent migraines, while Prakash is healthy.
There are a million factors that contribute to our vulnerability to illness, but medical and psychological experts are convinced that the deciding factor is firmly in our own control.
This means that happiness, or misery, health or illness, are choices that we make. In other words, misfortunes are not misfortunes at all, but our own views or attitudes towards situations. Yes, this is not the easiest of concepts to accept, but alas, it is the truth and nothing but the truth. It also means that we have the power to reverse such self-defeating views or self-destructive attitudes that cause intense physical and emotional illness.
Our views and attitudes develop in our growing years, due to learning from the environment and/or early childhood experiences. They are, thereafter, maintained as inflexible and rigid thinking patterns by constant self-[re]indoctrination of such views.
If you have experienced frustrations in the past because your desires were unfulfilled, you might develop a typical thinking pattern: “I’ll never get what I want, I know it won’t work out for me; it never does, so why try?” This is nothing short of over-generalisation: it becomes deeply ingrained, a “flawed belief.” It also leads to the feeling: that happiness is unattainable, as it is predicts the future even when there’s no evidence to back the idea.
This “flawed belief,” in turn, causes pessimism, depression, and a sense of feeling like a victim of some irreversible fate. It also leads to behavioural consequences, inactivity and lethargy. This results in not pursuing your goals actively, or being left with unfulfilled desires. This vicious cycle only expands with reinforcement of the belief that, “I’ll never get what I want, so why try?” Result: you’ll remain stuck with a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The question now arises: is there anything we can do about our own self-destructive tendencies? The answer is: yes!
You need not be a rocket scientist to decipher its fulsome connotation. That thinking patterns are nothing but bad habits, and you can work on changing a habit. Agreed, it is difficult, and it takes time, but it is possible. You can do it. You can make a conscious choice, and change for the good!
Stress to distress
Flawed attitudinal and behaviour patterns increase our susceptibility to a host of serious diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, cancer, and immune-related diseases, including Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome [AIDS].
If there are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, or a sense that you’ve been victimised by factors beyond your control, and you have no power to change it, your immune system starts “co-operating” with such thoughts. The fact is – you’re not trying to change your life. You have entered a phase – a phase of “giving up.” You simply surrender – helplessly. The outcome: your immune mechanism gets depressed, and you become susceptible to a whole host of illnesses and syndromes.
Besides your self-destructive thought pattern of helplessness of being the victim, and having no control, there is also another equally self-defeating thought pattern. It presents the overcharged, pushy perfectionist, obsessed with exerting perfect control over himself and others. The key words are “perfect control.”
People create traps for themselves with “musts” that cannot be satisfied. The cognitive process that facilitates the creation of stress almost always involves irrational beliefs. They include rigid, inflexible and usually unexamined personal philosophies and attitudes that we all possess to varying degrees. They can take the form of unconditional demands, such as, “I have to be successful,” “I must have absolute control over everything at all times, or else it would be awful, and it would mean that I am inadequate.” “I should be perfect in all my roles and, if I cannot, I’m worthless.”
People with generalised anxiety require very little in the form of activating events to perpetuate their anxiety. In fact, their own compelling and irrational belief system about events is usually adequate to trigger a reaction in them – to precipitate lurking anxiety, if not “danger.”
Experts contend that psycho-physiological disorders that develop or worsen as a direct result of such self-inflicted pressures and stress include peptic ulcer, hypertension, migraine and tension headaches, lower back pain, temporo-mandibular joint syndrome, sciatica, lupus, multiple sclerosis, arteriosclerosis [hardening of the arteries] and others.
It is also now well-documented that irrational beliefs are the foundation of prolonged arousal. As a matter of fact, emotional anguish has been shown to be the prime cause of most ills associated with stress. It is also evidenced that extended arousal states and emotional angst may lead to mental breakdown, or even death, due to the long-drawn-out, deleterious effects of the stress hormones in the body.
It’s all in your hands
Remember, how or what we choose to view in a given, or not given, situation is in our hands. Life has a number of hassles, but whether we see them as hassles, or horrors, or “this-too-shall-pass,” is in our hands. Think about it!
In the words of philosopher Herodotus, “We are not disturbed by things, but by our opinion of things.”
Counselling: Need of the hour
Statistics shows that the rate of psychological disturbances leading to suicide, homicide, marital breakdown, alcoholism, drug abuse etc., are increasing at an alarming rate all over the world. It would seem that as material comforts of life are increasing due to scientific explosion, mental health is sliding down the alley. Mental health is achieved when man is completely psychologically mature or self-actualised; psychological disturbances are nothing but a failure of such development.
According to National Mental Health Programme, about 20-30 million Indians are in need of some form of mental health care. Every year, 2,50,000 new cases are reported.
These figures do not include the thousands that may be suffering in silence without access to help. The fact is – with timely intervention and proper care, at least 60 per cent of these disturbed people can recover completely; and, at least 70 per cent can avoid chronic illness and disability. A large number of people can also be helped merely by listening empathically and actively, thus, establishing caring human interaction that can allow the disturbed individual to explore, understand and change something in himself/herself to solve problems. This is called personal counselling.
Personal counselling has never been more needed than it is today. Reason: there is an urgent need to rescue toxic and failing relationships; the relationship of man/woman with oneself, relationships within families, between neighbours, between communities, and between countries, before we self-destruct ourselves.
A stigma no less
We are obsessed with, and are doing so much for increasing our longevity without even thinking of the quality of life we lead? Physical health and wellbeing are given the highest priority with newer drugs flooding the market everyday. Has anyone ever thought as much about emotional and mental wellbeing?
The World Health Organization [WHO] has declared that the emotional health of humanity is declining, that cases of depression, nervous anxiety and psychosomatic disorders are on the rise, and that family doctors should look for signs in a patient, which would indicate the need for counselling.
In a society where going to the gym for physical fitness training and work-outs is considered as the “in-thing” to do, it is sad to see mental and emotional fitness and training are not accorded the same status.
There is also an invisible stigma attached to counselling; as a matter of fact, general practitioners hesitate to refer cases for personal counselling fearing that their patients may take offence. Denial of the need for therapy only compounds the problem, for if there is anything worse than having a problem, it is denying that you have one.
Timely intervention through counselling can avert many a disaster. Besides the removal of the stigma of counselling and correct referrals by family, friends and family doctors, what is required is creating an awareness of the vital need for counselling, and the knowledge of the availability of such help. Those who need intervention and counselling should not only be encouraged to reach out for help, but should also be applauded for the decision of taking active steps for bettering their life.
Friend in need
India has just about 3,000 counsellors and the actual requirement for counsellors is apparently enormous. But, the fact is – there are several misconceptions about the nature and intention of counselling and therapy. Many people believe that the purpose of therapy is to talk about their problems, rather than devising active means of solving these problems. It is not talk that is important, but action.
For successful therapy, certain essential conditions need to be fulfilled.
- Identifying something as a problem. Many people who are unfulfilled and seem to suffer are in denial about having a problem
- Accepting the possibility that something can be done about it. Many people admit having problems, but feel that this is the way they are and that nothing can be done about it
- Expressing a desire to change. Many people say they have problems, and acknowledge the possibility of change, but seem uninterested in changing
- A willingness to make an effort and do whatever it takes to change. This is crucial in distinguishing people who change from those who don’t, and this is what finally determines the success or failure of counselling.
The fact is, psychological growth and emotional re-education, like any other form of learning and development, call for active participation on the part of the learner. The counsellee needs to be committed, do whatever it takes, and as a result have what s/he wants. Because, the objective of all counselling and therapy is to get the counsellee to understand that the locus of control is in him/her – and, taking responsibility for his/her contribution to his/her situation and, thus, get him/her to fully participate in his/her own healing and work towards leading a healthy and harmonious life.
Hassle, not horror
Healthy balance is optimal control in which the individual actively takes care of everything that needs to be taken care of, and also has the capacity to stop and say, “No, that’s not my problem.” In short, a healthy and moderate alternative would be to – “Do your best, and leave the rest.” However this may be, under-control and over-control are two damaging extremes. They lead to an unhealthy body-mind.
Now, the question arises: how does one achieve optimal control and now where to draw the line. One big, practical answer is self-awareness. Self-awareness is listening to your body-mind when it indicates an imbalance in the form of an illness, through good organising and time management. It also involves changing your self-defeating thoughts and irrational belief systems, which leave you with overwhelming and debilitating emotions.
For example, if someone is impolite to you, you can either choose to say, “He’s having a bad day,” or shrug it away though it’s annoying. Or, you could rave and rant – “Why is this happening to me? How dare he.” and let out a barrage of expletives. This will escalate your initial annoyance to hostile rage and only serve to affect your physical and emotional health adversely. Remember – to be hassled and angry all the time is as bad as being a chain smoker. The effects on your health either way is equally destructive.
People often become additionally accident-prone because of extreme emotional reactions – these reactions make you uptight, exhausted and distracted. Let’s say you are tense and anxious while walking down the street. Your preoccupation, with your thoughts leading to your overwhelming emotions, makes you unaware towards your surroundings, and you trip and fracture your arm, or you don’t see the car approaching, nor do you hear the driver honking. You may meet with an accident.
Now, that we have established that our thinking is by far the most important factor in generating emotions, it becomes imperative that we become aware of our thoughts. In addition to this, we must make sure that we learn to think in more healthy and helpful ways.
Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
Looking after your state of mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Yet, most of us manage our physical health far better than our mental health. As soon as we feel a physical ache or pain we generally try to do something about it, but when we find ourselves feeling very low or stressed, and anxious, we tend to think it is just part and parcel of life. We don’t do anything to improve the situation. Of course, there are times when it’s natural to feel sad or anxious; for example, when you have suffered a loss, or if you are adjusting to a sudden unexpected change. But, if your mental balance is relatively good, you are likely to cope better in a crisis and recover more quickly and fully.
A healthy diet can do more than good to a healthy body. There are varieties of nutrients that appear to have a positive effect on brain health – these nutrients are known to be just as good for physical health. These include: minerals such as zinc, magnesium and iron; vitamins such as folate, B-vitamins, and anti-oxidant vitamins such as C and E, not to mention essential fatty acids [Omega-3].
At the same time, nutrients or foods that are seemingly implicated as having a negative effect on brain, and thus, mental health are also the same as those known to be poor for physical health – e.g., too much saturated fat and sugar.
A healthy diet – one high in fruits and vegetables, with a wide variety of whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, and occasional oily fish, lean meat and dairy products – is just as good for a healthy mind.
CW Assistant Editor Ashwini Ranade spoke to Pratima Havaldar, psychologist and counsellor, on the importance of emotional fitness and wellbeing – to lead a better life.
- What is the importance of emotional health and wellbeing to balance our lives?It is very important to balance our emotional health as there is a direct connection between the mind and body. Emotions play a major role in our daily activities. For e.g., if you are good at a particular job or work, or have the attitude for it, but don’t feel like doing it, you cannot give your best. Similarly, our behaviour is not always thought-based. Factors like attitude, tolerance, functioning [both physical and emotional] etc., can influence it in many ways.
- Does diet affect our mental health?What we eat directly affects our mind, as much as the body. For e.g., if what we eat is not digested properly, you start feeling uneasy and it makes you upset. Thus, our body influences our mind and vice versa.
- What is good stress and bad stress?Good stress is when your anxiety makes you perform better. For e.g., if you are preparing for a public talk or are an artist, or student, the tension [or, anxiety] you feel before the event should increase your confidence to give your best. It should help you to express your mind and body in sync.Bad stress makes you nervous and limits your performance. You might go blank during examination even if you are well prepared, or you may fumble while giving a speech. Thus, your behaviour puts you off and makes you feel depressed.
- Could you highlight a few simple measures that can help us deal with day-to-day stress?It is essential to spend some time with yourself and relax everyday. Our thoughts are like flowing water. You cannot stop them; they will get channelised to another route. So, it is important to have control of your body and mind. Regular practice of yoga and meditation can help you to stay tuned and plan better. Along with this, other factors that help manage stress are time management, prioritising responsibilities, being ambitious and aware of our internal and external resources. By internal, I mean your ability and capacity to do things; external means financial and social constraints.
All of us strive for satisfaction. My mantra is to pause… relax. take a break. and, move ahead in life. This also leads to better planning and achieving our goals.
10 Tips to Beat Your Blues
According to recent labour studies, depression accounts for close to US$12 billion in lost workdays each year. More than US$11 billion in other costs accrue from decreased productivity. In that light, the following encompass 10 great tips on dealing with depression.
- Exercise. Just taking a short walk on a break or lunch hour is helpful. Exercise creates endorphins, which stimulate happiness. It’s also good for your general health
- Express your emotions. Holding negative emotions within can cause you to behave in ways that can be destructive to yourself and your family/ co-workers. Allow yourself a few minutes to feel the pain, and then determine the most appropriate way to deal with it. Talking with a trusted co-worker may help
- Write. Daily journalling is a positive and creative way to release painful feelings. Many great books, songs and poems have come from the depths of depression. Begin by just writing about how you feel at the moment and see where it goes from there.
- Light. Using a full spectrum lamp for 15 minutes a day can heal SAD [Seasonal Effectiveness Disorder], a type of depression that occurs when we don’t get enough sunlight. The cold and short days of winter can be especially depressing for those with SAD. Even in summer, mental upsets can darken your mood.
- Air. Keep windows open, the fresh air is uplifting and makes the brain and heart function better. Fresh air is also better for the immune system than air-conditioning.
- Diet. A balanced diet will help control your brain chemistry and make it easier for you to choose behaviours that will help you pull yourself out of the doldrums
- Vitamins. A recent article in Psychology Today reports that “fish oil [omega-3 fatty acids] may be as effective as drugs in alleviating depression.” Physicians have long recognised that people who take their vitamins usually feel better
- Therapy. Talking about your pain to someone who can help you reframe and heal is a tried and trusted method for curing depression. Make sure that the therapist you choose has been trained in depression treatments and, if you take medication, work with your physician
- Work. Being successful in one area of your life often leads to feeling successful in other areas. Don’t sit around and mope; do the best job possible. The pay-off will be much larger than a cheque
- Trust. For most people depression is a temporary situation. Although when you are deep within it, it’s hard to see your way out, you ought to believe that it will end. It can be helpful to note that there may be a life lesson to be learned in the process and that coming through a difficult emotional time can make you a much better person.
Start with one or two of these tips and see how it goes. People with depression need to be reminded that they do have some control here, and not taking it is a choice to remain in the darkness. Be proactive, because, healing this difficult disorder may not be easy, but it can be as simple as turning on the light switch.