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Dr Sameer Parikh on how to better manage anxiety, work-life balance during a lockdown

If there ever was an example of how interconnected, interdependent we are as a society, then what is happening with Covid-19 is it. What started in one part of the world has affected all of us, says Dr Sameer Parikh, director and head of mental health and behavioural sciences department, Fortis Healthcare Delhi

May 8, 2020 5:25:51 pm

Dr Sameer Parikh, director and head of mental health and behavioural sciences department, Fortis Healthcare Delhi, speaks about how, during this almost month-and-a-half lockdown, it is important to focus on your mental well-being. From handling children at home to a good night’s sleep, Dr Parikh shares valuable tips for many of our anxieties. Below is an edited transcript from the Facebook LIVE video of his conversation earlier this week.

These are unprecedented times that none of us were prepared for. Covid-19 hit us suddenly and brought with it a lot of distress, worry and anxiety.

I have always felt that because of our work-life imbalance, the way we have been by and large that we have started becoming disconnected from each other. If there ever was an example of how interconnected, interdependent we are as a society, then what is happening with Covid-19 is it. What started in one part of the world has affected all of us.

We stand in a situation today, wherein if I am socially responsible towards you, and you are socially responsible towards me, you and I together can beat this. So, let that stay in our minds that we have a collective role to play here.

Let’s start with the first three common anxieties. First ”what if I or my family falls ill”, the illness-anxiety component; the second, “what do I do with this uncertainty? I don’t know what’s coming next”. And third, “how do I deal with this sudden new way of life? Working from home, and masks and sanitisers and feeling a lockdown, so what do I do?” All these anxieties are normal, natural, human reactions.

What you should not do

Don’t follow graphs and news in a way that it keeps on playing in your mind. Do not allow yourself in any way to be swayed by false information on social media. Make sure you verify the source before passing it on.

And what you should do?

Follow government guidelines strictly. It will give you confidence. So, hand-sanitise, maintain hygiene, maintain physical distance, ensure you do not go out unless absolutely essential. Be transparent and open. This will give you the feeling of confidence that you are in control.

Now, let’s go to the next anxiety, which is the anxiety of the uncertain future. There’s a cognitive principle that we talk about — Locus of Control. What is External Locus of Control, what is Internal Locus of Control, what is in my control, what is not in my control, how do I lead my life, etc

Now, what is not in your control, what will happen next, we don’t know. For example, some of you might be NEET students and may be waiting for your medical entrance exam. I can totally understand what it is like, the anxiety and frustration. But the fact is you and I both don’t know when the exam will happen. But we both also know that it is still a level-playing field because all of the students will be taking the exam at the same time. You will be given adequate time to begin for preparation.

When will the vaccine come? How would anybody know that? At least you and I don’t know that. Surely, people are working on it. When it comes, you and I will be the first to know about it as well.

So it’s important that rather than looking at the uncertain future, procrastinating. allowing negative thoughts to come to you. Focus on the present. Positivity, productivity, connectivity.

Positivity because that’s what builds resilience. Sometimes you feel low, sometimes a colleague feels low or a family member feels low, that’s where you stand up, be counted for, bring positivity to them.

Do not allow stigma. Do not discriminate. Our fight is against the illness. It’s a collective fight. Our fight is not against individuals. We need to really stand up and respect, specially, frontline workers.

Imagine going out, vulnerable, being exposed, coming back to your family, understanding the sheer impact it has and yet doing your job day in and day after. Bring positivity, praise, compliments, empathy.

Second is productivity. And when I say productivity, taking care of your home, household-related work is also being productive. Taking care of your family and neighbours is also being productive.

And the third is connectivity. You stay connected with people so that you don’t feel you are by yourself. You don’t let anybody else feel that they are by themselves so that we feel oneness in this.

Now, let’s go to how to deal with this newer environment lifestyle.

So let’s start with lifestyle. Fix your wake-up time, else you will start feeling dull, lethargic. You feel the day is not going on too well. So, do it like pre-COVID times. Do your housework. Help each other out. Do not allow the burden of taking care of your home to fall on an individual.

For those working, create a work window. And for all team leaders, organisation heads, HR, please ensure you create a work window, which means start time is fixed, end time is fixed so that you bring a structure, which is physically and mentally creating a demarcation between work and home. That’s very important to prevent any form of burnout.

Make a workstation, which is fixed so that the remaining part of your home becomes your personal space. Work like experts — 40-45 minutes, take a 15-minute break, check out what all is happening at home, come back.

If you are a student and you have online classes, wear your school uniform, if you are working from home, wear your work clothes. It will help you stay better focused.

If you have young children at home, give them more time, lot of physical activities, board games. Give teens more space. Encourage them to stay connected with their friends because peer relationship dynamics and support matters a lot to teenagers.

If you have senior citizens, don’t let them spend time alone. Encourage them to stay wherever all of you are, around you.

Families should have lots of video calls, stay connected with others. We have an opportunity to utilise our social potential or social relationships that strengthen the very existence of mankind, which is inter-connectedness. You might have relatives and friends living by themselves in different cities and places, which are more hotspots, give them that support.

Read, listen to music. Some pranayam, yoga, meditation. Put all of this together, you would then be getting your lifestyle on track. And that’s uniform.

What should people who suffer from anxiety do?

Let’s look at two kinds of people here. People who had anxiety previously, pre-COVID as well, if you are taking treatment, please continue. Keep talking to your doctors. Most are available for tele-consults. People taking therapy, continue. Also, during these times, if anxiety goes up a little bit, understand that for families who have people who have anxiety predisposition, give them more space. But at the same time, be around them. Don’t get after them, don’t be critical, give them space and help them stay relaxed.

But if your anxiety is developing now, and you’ve not had this in the past, look at the solution. Become a part of the solution, empower yourself, your anxiety will come down. Relaxation, breathing exercises, Pranayam, helps. Talking to people, staying connected also helps.

How to manage children during the lockdown?

I value online classes because I want children to have a routine. I also want children to feel normal and a sense of normalcy because I don’t want them to build up unnecessary anxiety. They should be connected to their friends and teachers. Use lots of art and creativity. Bring some element of fun. For slightly older children, involve them in some house/home-related tasks, make games out of it.

How to avoid a burnout

Avoid a burnout with a work window. Because if you don’t demarcate both physically and mentally work from home, a burnout is bound to happen. Because if you feel that you are working almost throughout the day, you’re not switching off from work. Your work starts in the morning, and ends just late at night because you were doing it the whole day in bits and pieces, and your mind gets more fatigued. And the other aspect is how you stimulate your mind, recreation, relaxation, social stimulation, personal interests, and then how do you take multiple breaks. You do all these things, your burnout won’t happen.

Is too much screen time a good habit?

I think we accept it as a here and now, short-term transactional problem, and not be too rattled by it. So yes, screen time is a bit of a concern but we’ll accept it for these times. I much rather have you happy, satisfied, comfortable, even if it is a little bit more of screen time right now. But if you can manage without it, wonderful!

Late night streaming and binge-watching

If you have a tendency to binge, don’t keep bingeable food next to you. And if you are doing a lot of online streaming, substitute it with reading. One of the common factors is watching the television from bed, or working from the bed or eating on the bed because it confuses the mind. Keep about a 30 to 45 minutes gap between the last programme watched and going to bed. Once in bed, only listen to music or read. Fix your wake-up time so that even if you’ve slept late, it doesn’t become an irregular sleep cycle. Waking up late the next day becomes a vicious cycle.

Few calming exercises

Mindfulness activities work. Plants. Reading. Listening to light music. Breathing exercises. Yoga. These are activities which help you relax and bring calmness. So, develop mindfulness and be more aware about your own autonomic system, a learning system to relax naturally.

Also in this series: Agartala’s ‘clean slum’ keeps the pandemic at hand’s length