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Look At Anxiety In An Indian Cultural Context To Address It, Says Clinical Psychologist Sonali Gupta

Posted: June 1, 2020

Clinical Psychologist and author Sonali Gupta speaks about her book Anxiety: Overcome it and live without Fear; and a need to deal with anxiety in an Indian cultural context.

The conversation around mental health has come a long way in the past decade. Never before have we allocated this level of time and resources towards mental health. But even then most of the conversation around mental health is privileged and euro-centric. This is one of the main reasons many Indian people still feel mental health and therapy is a ‘rich people problem’.

For example dating, marriage, parent children relationships are all significantly different in India from that in other countries. What we need is an Indian context to mental health.

Mumbai based Clinical Psychologist Sonali Gupta’s new book “Anxiety: overcome it and live without fear” published by Harper Collins  does just that. It talks about day to day problems of an average Indian person and their co-relation to anxiety and how to deal with them. She has been practising for over 16 years and this book contains various examples and instances that her clients have experienced, and also anxiety issues over COVID-19

Why did Sonali Gupta choose to write a book on Anxiety?

Sonali’s decision to choose anxiety as the topic of her first book came as a result of seeing the increasing effects of anxiety in relationships and how anxiety affects other aspects of people’s lives as well. She explains her primary thought process for taking this decision,

“In my work I had begin to see that from 2013 onwards far more people across gender, across age group are reaching out specifically on concerns relating to anxiety. While they wouldn’t articulate it as anxiety, as we worked together I would figure that the concerns were related to anxiety. The problem with anxiety is that it’s so normalised that people don’t talk about it. Just because something is normalised doesn’t mean it is okay that people have to live through it. It is a problem we need to address it at a systemic level. ”

Anxiety and Social Media

Whenever we talk about anxiety or any other mental illness one of the most persistent advice is to quit social media. Social Media and news are triggering and often people are advised to stay away from them. However we live in a post COVID world where it is practically impossible to cut yourself from news and even social media which has become an important part of our lives. In such situations, what should a person who is prone to anxiety and depressive episodes do? Is it healthy to develop an avoidant lifestyle in order to deal with mental illness?

According to Sonali, however, these triggers will always exist; avoiding every trigger for the rest of your life is not practical. Instead of avoiding them, one should learn to manage them in healthy ways.

“How we do social media is what needs to change,” she says, “it’s not about staying away from it. It’s about becoming aware of how social media is influencing and shaping our identity. Similarly, it’s impossible to not watch news at all; but how much we consume and when do we choose to not consume, are the larger conversations that we need to have. Social media is here to stay and we should learn to navigate it and have a healthy relationship it and develop healthy boundaries surrounding it.”

Does anxiety require lifelong therapy?

One of the most common questions in relation to anxiety and depression is will the person ever get better? Will they need lifelong help to go through their lives?

Sonali says, “In the book I have talked about day to day anxiety that comes as a reaction to family dynamics, relationships, technology or social media, NOT ‘anxiety disorder’ which is different, and needs to be dealt with differently, often needing lifelong therapy. So the idea is that anxiety can be managed. A lot of people I have worked with in therapy are no longer in therapy. They still feel anxious because anxiety is not an emotion that goes away; but they are no longer overwhelmed with it. They have figured out their own algorithm to deal with that anxiety.”

What can you expect from the book?

The book is interactive with its readers and has columns to write things as you go. This not only makes it fun but also helps the reader to understand his/her own unique issues better.

Sonali says, “One of the goals is for people to see this book as a work book or toolkit that they can use for themselves. The book was written last year and it’s surreal that the book is being released now (during national lockdown due to Corona virus). The book was meant to be a paperback and I still believe that when the paperback comes, people should buy that to make notes and make it their own; it should be something you can go back to at a later stage.”

“Most people don’t even recognise that what they feel is anxiety, as a result of which sometimes people are very harsh to themselves and they think that they will not get better,” she continues. “So the narrative of writing this book is to give people a tool to identify anxiety, learn to be kind to themselves, and also find a sense of solidarity. So that somebody can feel that oh this has happened to others and they have dealt with it and I can also deal with it. I want to give the readers a sense of hope.”

Mental Health in an Indian context

In Indian culture our ‘desi’ problems, triggers and beliefs are very unique. And often when we try to understand mental health through the internet or books, the language, terms and context are lost to us. And that is what makes this book special because it is written for the average Indian person; it makes understanding these incredibly complex feelings easier.

“The goal is to enable people to introspect and trust their feelings and get help if needed. The book is also priced very reasonably so that people in smaller towns and cities of India where access to therapy is not easy, people can begin the process of looking within and figuring out what they are struggling with. In an Indian setup often we don’t even know when we should seek help and consider therapy, we don’t even realise when we are struggling with a problem,” asserts Sonali.

She continues, “There’s a chapter about love marriage called ‘anxious in love’ which details how a lot of Indian kids share a relationship of guilt and anxiety with their parents. I really do hope young people are reading this book but I also hope that their parents are reading it too because that’s how we are going to move towards any degree of change.”

Mental illness and the role of caregivers

Recently a close friend of mine experienced a panic attack and even though she was surrounded with people no one really knew or understood what was going on with her, someone thought it was an asthma attack, while others thought she was choking, they were hitting her on the back and offering her an inhaler; now imagine if she was experiencing a physical ailment like bleeding or fracture, she would have been quickly taken to a hospital. While so many people struggle with various levels of mental illness, there is a regrettable lack of knowledge and consideration in Indian society.

She says, “There’s a whole section on how to recognise, and help those having a panic attack; something very relevant if you are a caregiver or if someone in your family is struggling with anxiety. There’s a workplace chapter too, where I have discussed the millennial burnout, I have addressed how organisations need to address the problem from their end too, and as I say in the book that we need an Indian template to look at this.”

Dealing with complicated emotions

In our day to day lives, especially in crises situation like the one we are experiencing right now, it is very easy to get carried away with strong and destructive emotions such as anger, frustration and grief. And in most cases any decision that stems from such feelings is not reasonable. We don’t know how to deal with these feelings in a healthy way. Though there is no one size fit all method for this, there are ways as discussed in the book that might make it easier on the reader.

“The first step here is to recognise those emotions,” says Sonali. “Whether it is anxiety or grief, people need to acknowledge that they are experiencing these emotions, and then learning to work around it, especially since the causes could be misch deeper.”

How to choose the most suitable therapist for yourself

Therapy is often times quite expensive and it’s not easy to share your insecurities and vulnerabilities with a stranger even though the stranger is a professional. But in order to make progress in your journey a good client-therapy relationship needs to be established.

Here’s what you should know.
~ the most important factor is to choose a therapist who seems to be a good fit for you in a sense that they understand you, they understand where you are coming from culturally and socially, and also the vocabulary that you use. The last one is very important because in vulnerable moments people fall back to their mother tongue.
~ You need a sense of safety and non judgemental environment in your therapy.
~ Since therapy is not a one off session and you might need to see them for a significant amount of time, so choose a therapist whose fees work for you.
~ Choose a therapist who is close to you, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour of travel to see them. When you are feeling low and overwhelmed, travel becomes difficult.
~ And your therapist needs to be someone who works around specific areas that you struggle with for example PTSD or grief.

Advice for students aspiring to become clinical psychologist

Clinical Psychology is starting to become a top choice for students wanting a new and exciting career.

With 16 years of experience, Sonali advises, “Know how to pace yourselves while working in this field; this allows you to take care of yourselves. Ensuring your own emotional well being while working around them for others is crucial. It is important for anybody who is working to work at different levels. Working with NGOs, at the ground level, working with people across community and culture will give you a sense of ground reality. When we have to work in a country like ours, we need to work not just in an urban set up but rural set up as well. The more you do that the more you learn to be empathetic to different problems and struggles. It is also very important to know that you can only facilitate an environment for your clients; they have to find their own answers.

Do check out her on YouTube (embedded video above) where she talks about issues related to mental health.

We’ve a great lineup of women authors from HarperCollins India as part of #SheReads, and it promises to be both fun and informative with exclusive content and inter-activities coming forth from these authors.

Up your reading game with this great chance to avail attractive discounts on Harper eBooks here! 

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Asefa writes about the lives of women in smaller towns of India. Her interest include

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