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Helping people can benefit our mental health, especially in the time of a pandemic. Psychiatrist Dr. Gaurav Kulkarni says that altruism and doing selfless things for people, however small they may be, has great benefits for our mind; it gives us a sense of purpose, well being, and brings us joy. It also helps us overcome guilt if we aren’t able to help our own friends, family or loved ones who may be far away during this time.
“When you help people and you see them do better, it gives you a sense of strength,” Dr. Kulkarni says. He spoke to Femoai about coping with pandemic-related anxiety, helping others, and finding joy during the pandemic. Edited excerpts:
How can people deal with pandemic-related anxiety?
The situation has been frightening for most of us. The fear and uncertainty form covid is manifesting itself in various ways. People are scared of getting infected but there is also the financial and other impact of the pandemic. People are losing their jobs, their loved ones, sources of income etc, and it’s impacting our mental health.
We tell patients that when we have to cope with uncertainty, it is important to remain focused and not be obsessive. People need to try and not obsessively talk about Covid, check information related to Covid, or be glued to television, and constantly looking at data. Sure, everyone wants to stay informed but we need to keep obsessive behaviour in check. We can set up a time everyday to check the latest updates on Covid or listen to the news, but not let it be a constant affair.
There is also fake news, rumours, which add to your stress and anxiety. So whenever you’re seeking information, make sure the sources are trusted, and limit the time you’re spending on it. Whatever information you are adding to it, make sure it is from a valid source. And the rest of the time, try to keep a routine and the normalcy of your day as much as possible. We ask patients to try and focus on things that they can control rather than focusing on what they can’t. There is no point getting anxious about how fast Covid is spreading in a particular area because it’s out of our control.
Things that are in our control are the precautions we can take.
The other thing you can do is journaling. It helps to write about your concerns. People benefit by expressing their fears. When you write or express something, you feel lighter. Sometimes writing things also helps you generate an alternative thought for the same situation or look at things from a different perspective. If you feel that you are writing the same thing everyday, and it is making you more fearful, you can try some other relaxation techniques. It may be harder to relax on your own, so you can try assisted relaxation. You can listen to calming music; physical exercise helps in relaxation as well. Physical exercise is known to boost up certain neurochemical activity in the brain, which help us relax.
People have also been feeling lonely because of the lockdown, or if they are in quarantine or self isolation. Our advice is to stay connected digitally or over the phone even if you are in quarantine or living alone. It’s easy to stay virtually connected with people and it reduces the fear of being left out and being alone.
Try to use as much of your support system as you can during this time; your support system could be your family, a friend, a colleague, or a mental health professional. Seek support but make sure that the individual that you are seeking support from is in a position to support you. If you tend to move towards somebody who’s vulnerable, it adds to your stress and anxiety further. That person tends to become a stress sharing partner; it shouldn’t become a situation where two people talk every day and talk about the worries in life, that doesn’t help you.
Seek support but make sure that the individual that you are seeking support from is in a position to support you. If you tend to move towards somebody who’s vulnerable, it adds to your stress and anxiety further. That person tends to become a stress sharing partner; it shouldn’t become a situation where two people talk every day and talk about the worries in life, that doesn’t help you.
It is also important to take care of your physical health during this time and take adequate precautions, this can make you feel in control of your own body and ease your mind.
And finally, try to look for happiness, pleasure or joy in small actions, do things that you have not been able to do. In such times, helping others can bring a lot of joy. When you help people and you see them do better, it gives you a sense of strength. A situation like a pandemic can make you feel that you’re running out of resources to cope. And that is something that you need to rebuild. You have to make yourself believe that you have your resources, and a way of dealing with fear, that’s really important.
A situation like a pandemic can make you feel that you’re running out of resources to cope. And that is something that you need to rebuild. You have to make yourself believe that you have your resources, and a way of dealing with fear, that’s really important.
How does helping people help our mental health?
For some reason, we innately believe that help has to be voluminous. That isn’t so. It could be as simple as offering a meal to someone or sharing something with someone, driving someone from one place to the other, which doesn’t take a lot of time or effort. These are some things that you can do during this time and continue to do them, instead of just doing it once.
A lot of us are also battling with a sense of loss, a sense of grief or a sense that we may not be able to do something for people we love. Some of us have friends or family in different cities and we may not be able to provide for them. This affects all of us and we feel stressed about it. If you are not able to help someone far away, channelise that effort in helping someone who is around you. It makes us feel that since a family member is not around, maybe a stranger will help them; it motivates us to help a stranger as well. These are coping mechanisms that help us pacify our guilt, and gives us a sense of well being; it makes us feel that we are in a position to do something for someone and we are doing it. These are small techniques but they really help our mental health because you are consuming your time in a positive way.
Talk to us about some of the physical symptoms of anxiety that people shouldn’t ignore in themselves or in people they know.
Before the pandemic, we would advocate that if someone feels anxious or stressed, they should first try to resolve it on their own, but during this time our advice is that if someone feels things are going out of control, they should definitely seek professional help. With more than a year into the pandemic, and the kinds of difficulty we have seen patients go through, we have modified our own suggestions. Our advice now is that if someone feels anxious and panicky, they shouldn’t waste a lot of time. They should try all the measures that they can, because once these situations become chronic, they become harder to deal with.
If someone notices symptoms that lead to a strong sense of anxiety, or panic, they definitely should see a mental health professional, whether it’s an in clinic or even via virtual consultation.
Now, some amount of anxiety is a normal phenomenon, we are driven by anxiety, and positive anxiety keeps a check on us and motivates us. But what we are seeing right now is definitely not the positive kind. The symptoms of anxiety can be physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural.
The cognitive symptoms are — a constant sense of fear, worry, and uncertainty. If you feel that you’re constantly stressed out, you’re not able to stop your thoughts, you feel you’re constantly preoccupied with something that is keeping you away from work, family or normal life, then you are cognitively very stressed out.
As the cognitive symptoms increase, the mind starts affecting the body and you see various physical symptoms. People often become hyper vigilant; they start to notice the smallest possible changes that happen around them and they’re uncomfortable with it. Hyper vigilance about the self, about your surroundings is a symptom of anxiety. This has definitely increased due to Covid.
The other physical symptoms are feeling restless, feeling emotionally unstable, butterflies in the stomach, palpitations, the heart beating faster, breathing difficulty, tremors in the hands or the body, a sudden sense of weakness, feeling a heavy weight on your chest, frequent trips to the loo, inability to sit in one place, and difficulty with focusing.
In corporate employees, we often notice attention issues rather than physical symptoms. The brain is so overworked with anxiety-ridden thoughts, that they are not able to focus. They may have attention span issues, focus issues, and panic, which is a heightened state of anxiety.
When all these symptoms are coming into play, people start becoming emotionally affected. They start experiencing symptoms like mood swings or other behavioural symptoms like wanting to stay at home, isolating themselves, not going out. Some people even avoid social contact over the phone. If people identify these symptoms and they sustain, they definitely need to seek intervention.
Dr. Gaurav Kulkarni
MBBS, M.D. (Psychiatry)
Psychiatrist, Sexologist, Addiction Psychiatrist
Ph: +91 99875 45314
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