“Anxiety is an invisible emotion that people carry around with them,” says Sonali Gupta, Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and author of the new book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear. “But we don’t yet have an Indian template to look at anxiety,” she adds. Although conceived and written over several years, the book feels freakishly well-timed. Even the most robust optimists among us cannot remain immune to “corona anxiety” in this prolonged and indefinite period of lockdown.
Gupta’s book is a primer to understanding and controlling anxiety, based on her experience of working as a mental health professional for 16 years, treating clients as young as 15 and going up to 80. The writing is lucid, the case histories easily relatable, and the activity breaks interspersed with the chapters add to the book’s practical usefulness. Most crucially, Gupta debunks Indian society’s toxic shame culture, which makes anxiety not only a difficult condition to deal with, but also to confront and treat.
‘Who doesn’t feel anxious?’
The injunction to be a successful and model citizen is drilled into school-going children around the world, but in India the pressure to excel tends to assume stifling proportions. For a large section of the Boomer generation, it was imperative that their children, the “Generation X”, became doctors, engineers and management executives. The millennials seem to enjoy a wider choice, thanks to the gig economy and the eclectic career options available to them. But it isn’t easy, even for the smartest, to uproot deep-seated social conditioning, passed down through the decades.
“Many of my clients are high-functioning individuals, who feel guilty to even bring up the fact that they are feeling anxious,” Gupta says. “It’s almost as if anxiety is normalized. ‘Who doesn’t feel anxious?’ they say.” As a result of this reluctance to face facts, young people experience panic attacks but don’t know what’s wrong with them. “Some of my referrals come from dermatologists and gastroenterologists for clients in whom anxiety manifests as physical symptoms,” Gupta adds.
Even though the common tendency is to think of psychosomatic diseases as being induced by stress and anxiety, the two terms are distinct in clinical practice. As Gupta explains, while stress is caused by identifiable triggers, anxiety may be experienced without any specific stressors. “Those who are disposed to anxiety may feel anxious about not feeling anxious,” she says.
Such people always imagine the worst-case scenario, they are in the habit of what Gupta says “catastrophizing”. The simple act of ordering a cab from an app-based service can send them on an anxiety spiral, fuelled by the anticipation of the driver cancelling the ride. Heavy dependence on social media and the internet can spike anxiety, as is evident from our work, life and relationships.
The sections on family life, dating, friendship and socialization are particularly insightful, not least because of the inventive vocabulary Gupta uses: “phubbing” (or phone snubbing is the act of scrolling your phone while someone is speaking to you); “seen-zoned” (when you know your message has been seen but the recipient hasn’t replied); RESET (Recognize, Examine, Self-sabotaging belief, Engagement, Time-out), pause and closure rituals.
The last twoare especially pertinent for these times when office cultures around the world are undergoing a sea change as a vast section of the workforce moves to working from home.
Don’t shame millennials
In the hierarchy of anxiety, workplace and relationships rank the highest, perhaps because they are tied to questions of income, social status and self-perception. Every generation bears these burdens with varying intensity, though younger millennials, having grown up with social media and open-minded conversations about mental health, are more vocal than others about their emotional well-being.
As an older millennial herself, Gupta is strongly opposed to shaming millennials as a generation that is too sensitive, self-centred, and bad at “adulting”. When expressed in workplaces by older colleagues, these prejudices take on a toxic colour. “By shaming millennials, we are adding to their anxieties,” Gupta says.
In the section on workplace anxiety, Gupta uses several of her millennial clients’ testimonies to show up the gruelling corporate work culture in India. One client mentions a barrage of phone calls and emails on a Sunday regarding a project months away from its deadline. Employees who are divorced, single or attached but not married, routinely complain of being given extra work over weekends, presumably because their personal obligations are less than others’.
“Corporates need to acknowledge ‘invisible labour’,” Gupta says. “Even if employees raise a complaint against such exploitative behaviour to HR, there are no best practices to deal with these grievances in India.” While some companies have begun to be more mindful of the mental well-being of their employees, just having a policy isn’t enough. “Policy needs to come with provisions of redress, in case it is violated,” Gupta adds.
The culture of casual sniggering at the need to seek therapy, for instance, and belittling colleagues through subtle barbs, makes people circle back to the insidious narrative of shame. “Some of my clients say they do not claim reimbursement for seeking mental healthcare, even though they are entitled to it by their companies,” Gupta says. “They fear that the knowledge of their having to seek therapy might be detrimental to their career prospects.”
For change to come through, she adds, it must trickle down from the top. Women and men in leadership roles have to encourage employees to seek therapy instead of dismissing their anxieties (“Oh, these millennials make too much noise about mental health!”). Over the last few years, the situation appears to be improving, albeit slowly. “About 20% of my clients are in their 60s now,” Gupta says. They are seeking consultation as individuals or for couples’ therapy.
If we are looking for silver linings in this age of anxiety, this shift might be one.