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‘I had everything I had ever wanted, yet I was anxious all the time’

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A year ago, my life was perfect. I had just been promoted to general manager of a youth film studio. I had been married for two years and had started making enough money to save for ‘the future’. On my days off, I was teaching, hosting a YouTube show, giving talks, and vacationing in my favourite places in the world. My Facebook longposts would receive many likes, my Instagram pictures a lot of love, and Twitter had even verified me. I was happy.

Or so I thought. In May last year, I was diagnosed with anxiety. Anxiety is a confusing, strange emotional battle that starts with a niggle, where you have that sinking feeling of something bothering you, which grows into a full-blown monster where you think the world around you is going to fall apart. You can’t breathe, speak or think clearly. Your smallest thought or fear becomes your evil nemesis. You lose control of your mind and spiral into a black hole of paranoia and panic. You feel nothing will be okay, ever.

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How could this happen to me? On the surface, I wasn’t facing anything that I wouldn’t characterise as a ‘first-world problem’. I was any working professional in a big city who’d willingly lose parts of their soul in never-ending traffic to get to my precious workstation every day, because that’s where dreams came true. The endless hours we put in on days that would turn into nights was to service that goal we had been programmed to pursue all our lives, for it promised a good house, a great car, a self-important designation and a wholesome life.

A life, I realised eventually, I hadn’t really been living. I would move from one day to another, one assigned project to another, one vacation to another, chasing one goal, one high, one award, one notification after another, constantly feeding my social media for validation that would, momentarily, make me feel whole again.

But I had been empty inside for a long time. Because there was no meaning to any of this. I was doing and achieving and moving and travelling and existing according to the middle-class ‘plan’, but not living. And so, anxiety struck: I started feeling too much… because I had been feeling too little.

‘Anxiety is a confusing, strange emotional battle that starts with a niggle, a sinking feeling of something bothering you, and grows into a full-blown monster that makes you think nothing will ever be okay again,’ says Nikhil Taneja. ‘Ever since I first spoke about my anxiety on social media, a mind-boggling number of friends and strangers have opened up about their struggle. Many still can’t quite fathom what’s wrong.’

In my year of struggling to show out this uninvited guest, I started therapy, quit my job, took a sabbatical from my career, changed my lifestyle, reset my priorities, and have written and spoken about mental health openly, even co-founding a podcast called Work in Progress (with Cyrus Sahukar and Aalap Deboor) to talk about everyday mental health. And in this most remarkable year, not only have I chanced upon a better life filled with kindness, compassion and love from family, friends and strangers; but also a crucial understanding that everything I had ever known about mental health had been wrong.

Growing up, I had seen depression wreak havoc in a loved one, but my elementary understanding of mental health had still been that it constituted severe, clinical illnesses. Illnesses that would require repeated medication at the least, and possibly spells of hospitalisation. Only in the past year, have I discovered that mental health really is a spectrum; there is an everyday mental health struggle that more people in urban centres around us are going through than we could imagine.

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The clinical term for this kind of anxiety, one of two common mental disorders (CMDs), is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and, according to a 2017 World Health Organisation report titled Let’s Talk, 38 million people in India are reportedly affected by it. Another 56 million have the other CMD, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), or depression. That’s an astounding 7% of India’s population. Unless diagnosed, few know there is a name for what they are feeling. And hardly anyone understands what is happening to them.

In the hectic lives we are conditioned to live in cities, it’s easier to dismiss these feelings of emptiness or hopelessness, because we simply don’t believe they are worth our time or consideration. This may be because of how we frame our understanding of mental health, says Manoj Chandran, CEO of the Bangalore-based White Swan Foundation, an online repository of information on mental health founded in 2014.

“Mental health issues are believed to have three sources: Genetics (passed on through genes), psychological (the way our individual brains are wired) and environmental (the world we live in),” Chandran adds.

While the former two form the lens through which we usually understand mental health, it’s the physical environment that has become a key component. “It includes factors like how we live, our relationships, the adverse effects of technology and social media, our habits and lifestyle, even the food we eat.”

GAD should not be confused with everyday stress. “Stress is common and normal. It can actually help us focus and multitask,” says Dr Sabina Rao, consultant psychiatrist at the international hospital chain, Columbia Asia.

“When the experience of doing a daily task, or even daily life, becomes a chore; when you seem to be pushing harder and harder but functioning less and less effectively; when you no longer find joy in doing the things you loved and your mind is exhausted, that’s a sign that your mental health is in bad shape.”

***

Ever since I first spoke about my anxiety on social media, a boggling number of friends and strangers have opened up to me about their mental health struggles, and most of them seem to be struggling to handle their physical environment.

For some, there was a point where it all began (but continued beyond it) – an unhappy relationship, dissatisfaction with work, stress of competition. Many others still can’t quite fathom what’s wrong. There are common threads — loneliness, restlessness, a lack of contentment, a craving for experiences that are simple, communal, offline and outdoors.

Part of this stems from an urban Indian culture of hyper-competitiveness, where you are told from a young age that you must ‘be something’ or ‘become somebody’.

Media executive Saurabh Rathore, 33, who hosts an online chat show called Middle Class Problems, says his conversations with regular people about vulnerabilities we seldom open up about has shown him that “Indians want to have it all but don’t want to make changes in social structures”. “People take pride in simultaneously working late hours and chasing unrealistic deadlines while trying to balance personal lives,” he says. “It’s a badge of honour.”

Mumbai-based clinical pscyhologist Sonali Gupta, who recently curated among Mumbai’s biggest mental health awareness initiatives at the Godrej India Culture Lab, works with high-functioning clients of all ages, who come to her in search of the answer to a better quality of life.

‘I am seeing the window before the first burnout shrink,’ says clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta. ‘Particularly for millennials who entered a very competitive job market earlier than the generation before, the first burnout happens between 21 and 26, and a second one follows between 28 and 31.’

“I am seeing the window before the first burnout shrink,” she says. “Particularly for millennials who entered an increasingly competitive job market earlier than the generation before, the first burnout happens between 21 and 26, and a second one follows between 28 and 31. A lot of it is because we are working longer hours, earning much more way earlier in life, and constantly comparing our lives to the lives of others and racing to try and catch up.”

Most of the people I spoke to for this piece — ranging in age from 22 to 37 and in occupations from content creators to entrepreneurs — agreed unequivocally that social media adds to the mental chaos.

You are never logged out; never alone with loved ones; never living the moment in the moment. Instead, there is pressure to live up to the exciting, adventurous, happy Instagram stories of others; collect more likes and hearts than you did last week.

“Social media is filled with people living great lives, while you’re just sitting there scrolling, wishing you had more. No one talks about the bad parts,” says 27-year-old stand-up comedian Sahil Shah, who recently wrote an essay on his own struggle with depression that went viral. “So we are left feeling ashamed to talk about the sad aspects of our lives for fear that people will think we are ruining their vibe.”

***

A common mistake, mental health experts say, is to ask why me. It took me a long to time to realise that it wasn’t just me. It’s most of us. Many choose to ignore what they are feeling; it becomes a ‘way of life’. Then one day you reach a point where your body finally mirrors your mind, and you have no option but to finally listen to yourself. Take it slow, take a break, and, if you can afford it, hit reset.

Only when you cut out the hashtags, the FOMO and YOLO, the ‘log kya kahenge’ can you really re-prioritise. Take a step back from the limitlessness of the internet and the hundreds of Facebook friends and online opinions, and focus on what made you happy, what gave your days and years meaning.

That’s what 32-year-old former asset manager and DJ Ajay Makhija did, after years of feeling lost in his mid-20s. He reset his life and threw himself into meditation, Vipasana, Ayurveda, Buddhist and Tibetan therapies, in his search for a meaningful existence, eventually opening his own mental health and wellbeing resort, Gaia Yogashala, in Thailand.

“We live lives where we need to go on retreats to be ‘happy’. I chose to build a life you don’t need to retreat from,” he says.

***

When RJ Meera Damji started Heart to Heart with Meera on 104.8 FM, she was just trying to empower people to share their feelings with a non-judgmental stranger. But because radio offered a “safe space”, the show quickly became a refuge for people to talk about what was making them anxious.

“From teenagers unable to take up careers of their choice to LGBTQ individuals not allowed to be open about their sexuality, to people continuing in failed or abusive marriages because their parents wouldn’t accept a divorce, the everyday mental health struggles are very real,” Damji says.

On her radio show that encouraged people talk about anxiety, RJ Meera Damji found out how pervasive the issue was. Teenagers unable to take up careers of their choice, LGBTQ individuals not allowed to be open about their sexuality, people continuing in failed or abusive marriages because their parents wouldn’t accept a divorce all opened up on the show.

The good news is, many are now creating platforms for conversations around mental health; safe spaces where people can talk about what they are going through and, crucially, be heard.

Two Mumbai-based media professionals, Hiral Malde and Khushboo Rawal Balwani, recently conducted an open-mic and panel discussion on mental health as part of The Micro Fiction Festival (TMFF), and have started an initiative called Curators of Happiness, to ‘pause for some positivity.’

“We want people to know that nobody is alone in this,” Malde says. “We can fight this together.”

Looking back, that’s the advice I wish I could have given a younger me: listen to yourself. Accept that you are going through something and talk about it. To friends, family, loved ones. And if it gets too much, reach out to a professional for help. Do not suffer in silence. It’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to be kind to yourself. Because it’s okay to not be okay.

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