Your book describes anxiety as a mental health crisis that has gripped over 30 million Indians. How would you break down the reasons behind this?
Over the last five-six years, I felt that anxiety topped the list of concerns — followed by relationships and loneliness — when it came to therapy sessions with my clients. One of the reasons to write this book was to talk about how anxiety plays out from an Indian perspective and unique factors like the pressure to marry, and our relationship with parents that contributes to our anxiety. Also, in India, often anxiety has been normalized; as a result, people don’t end up reaching out for help. The book talks about how an environment of uncertainty and flux and also how our cognitive distortions like catastrophizing and irrational beliefs all contribute to anxiety. The silver lining is that anxiety can be managed.
In your experience as a therapist for the last 16 years, what are some of the most common sources of anxiety that clients talk about?
Some of the most common sources are burnout, workplace stress, and the consistent shaming and pressure that Millennials and GenZ have to deal with. Often, people’s relationship with social media and technology contributes to anxiety and then concerns about dating, intimacy and relationships.
Where do they find the courage to get professional support when a large number of Indians still view therapy as a “Western import” that is alien to “Indian culture”?
I feel reaching out for therapy is a sign of strength rather than weakness. More and more people are embracing therapy now as a way to find their own answers. Most people I work with come through referrals made by my clients or other mental health professionals. I feel people who have a desire and willingness to work on their concerns make it to therapy.
Although there is a growing discourse around mental health on social media, it can be difficult for the layperson to distinguish between genuinely useful information and half-baked knowledge. How should people decide what to trust?
I think what’s most important is to discern where the information is coming from and how well researched it is. While seeking help, it’s important that people check the credentials of the psychologist or psychiatrist.
You call your book an emotional toolkit to help people take care of themselves. What might be the best way to use this book, and can it substitute therapy for individuals from marginalized communities who cannot afford the cost of one-on-one sessions?
The information provided in the book is for readers to understand their relationship with anxiety. It is not a substitute for individual therapy. The idea is that the book serves as an emotional toolkit that offers hope, helps people identify what anxiety looks like, when to reach out for help and most importantly tools that can help understand what the process of healing looks like. A lot of readers have written to me, saying how this recognition of triggers has helped them understand how to navigate differently and learn to be more self-compassionate.
What are some misconceptions about mental health at large, and anxiety in particular, that you would like people to guard against?
One of the top myths that I challenge in the book is “Some people never experience anxiety”. The reality is that I have never met a person who hasn’t felt anxious. Everyone feels anxious at different stages of life and to different degrees. Another myth is about how happy events don’t lead to anxiety. In my experience and research, we do know that positive events like marriage, starting a new relationship, or even childbirth can trigger anxiety in us. Most importantly, anxiety is not necessarily a negative emotion. It evolved to protect us from threatening situations.
Please explain this statement in your book: “Not everyone who has anxiety is struggling with an anxiety disorder.”
We can see anxiety on a spectrum. People experience anxiety to different degrees. There are so many people who struggle with moderate amounts of anxiety, which may not qualify for the criteria mentioned for anxiety disorders yet it impacts their well being. That’s why it’s important to understand how to deal with anxiety even when it doesn’t qualify for a disorder or condition.
Could you talk a bit about some of the concepts you introduce in the book in relation to our digital lives — email anxiety, productivity guilt, dopamine loops, and the fear of missing out?
Some of these terms are applicable to each of us, and more so in the context of the pandemic. Given our busy lives, where we constantly have access to technology, people fall for social comparison. There is a pressure to be available, and an itch to continually be on this ‘doing mode’. Our email anxiety, a desire to be constantly productive, checking updates on social media consistently to deal with our fear of missing out contributes to our anxiety, as it doesn’t allow us to rest and pause.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, those who are forced to spend long periods of time at home are turning to electronic devices for connection, relief and distraction. What are the boundaries that one could set to ensure well being?
It is important for people to keep a check on when watching news is overwhelming them, and accordingly set time limits to their phone usage. From a sleep hygiene perspective, it may be important to stop consuming news about 30-40 minutes before one chooses to go to bed.
For people who are not used to thinking about death, it seems too close at hand right now. How can therapy help them deal with their anxiety around illness, hospitalization, and the loss of loved ones?
The pandemic has triggered a sense of anticipatory grief for a lot of people. Often therapy helps people recognize when they are thinking of worst case scenarios. It helps them acknowledge some of their unrealistic fears, and also recognize what is in their control.
How can therapy help people whose anxiety is linked to experiences of discrimination based on their caste, gender or sexuality?
Therapy is a process of enhancing one’s own awareness and often also understanding how our concerns play out in the context of larger ecosystems. The process can help people understand how they deal with their experiences of discrimination and trauma. At the same time, they also learn to be kinder to themselves and possibly find hope and meaning in the context of safe spaces and what structural resilience can look like.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.