On paper, you have a picture perfect life: A spacious house, a swanky address, a good partner, a decent job, annual family vacations and a big car. You have a wide circle of friends you go out drinking with, or invite home.
There’s just one hitch. You are always on the edge, your mind racing from one thing to another. Activities that gave you pleasure in the past, such as shopping for yourself or reading, have become chores on your to-do list. You are nagged by constant fears, even if it’s something as mundane as making it in time for a movie or submitting the electricity bill before it gets too late.
This, say the mental health experts, is lifestyle anxiety. And according to them, 98 per cent of Indians, especially those living in urban centres, suffer from it. "It is the endemic of today," says Dr Nikhil Raheja, psychiatrist, National Institute of Psychiatry, New Delhi. Raheja says he doesn’t know of anyone who doesn’t suffer from some form of anxiety or another. "This is the kind of anxiety that makes you jumpy, edgy and worried," he says. When this escalates, it spirals into clinical disorders such as anxiety attacks or panic attacks. "We get a very large number of patients who suffer from this. Thirty-seven per cent of the total cases we get are anxiety-related," adds Raheja.
Aren’t we more anxious even though we lead better lives than our parents and grandparents did? Varun Dhiman, 34, an MNC executive, agrees. "I have the security of my parents’ house and have bought one of my own. I earn well, live a good life, eat out, and travel. I have the best of medical facilities available. Yet, I worry."
We have access to a burgeoning number of yoga, wellness and rejuvenation spas. But we’re still anxious. This could be because we are geared to believe that it is anxiety which will make us win in life. And herein lies the catch, says Dr Sunil Mittal, chairman of the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, New Delhi. "We believe that this anxiety – to chase a dream and always be on the run – is what will make us thrive. But in this focused effort to ‘achieve’ and control events in our lives, we often flounder." Are you in a hurry?
Anxiety is a feeling of being in a constant state of unease, and fearing the outcome. It can be triggered by something as banal as getting worked up about being on time while driving to work. "Anxiety starts with a single worry. When the mind focuses too much on it and for a long time, it sets in. That’s how little worries turn into anxieties," says clinical psychologist Dr Seema Hingorrany. An anxious person is always in a hurry, constantly irritable, gets negative thoughts and, depending on personality type, may brood for hours or get angry.
People in a state of constant anxiety fall back on quick fixes such as alcohol, cigarettes, even gutka; and they love the distraction of parties. Anxiety, over a period of time, can cause a drastic change in weight (gain or loss), a change in sleep pattern (disturbed sleep, sleeping too much or too little, interrupted sleep and sometimes even unpleasant dreams). "Anxiety releases hormones called epinephrines in the body," says lifestyle management expert Rachna K Singh. "These increase the heart rate, constrict blood vessels, and dilate air passages causing fatigue and breathlessness. Also, bottled anxiety causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and even minor phobias such as fear of lizards, dogs, of getting into lifts, crossing the road etc," adds Singh.
The anxious generation
There are many reasons why our generation is more anxious than our grandparents and our parents.
A matter of time: "Do we actually make time for ourselves the way our parents did?" asks Dr Nikhil Raheja. The answer is ‘no’. "We drive hours to reach home. We usually never reach before eight at night. Barely are we through with dinner than we start planning the next day. Rewind to our parents’ generation. People would reach home early, spend time with each other, chat, watch their favourite show on Doordarshan. Also, most women were homemakers. So stresses were evenly divided."
Where’s the next task? We have so much on our plate now that we can never sit still and focus on what we are doing. "We are always thinking two days in advance," says Ruhani Jaiswal, 28, copywriter with an advertising firm. "There have been times when I am sitting getting my pedicure done. But all that time I am either responding to SMSs or thinking about the groceries to be picked up, the silver earrings I have to buy, what my boyfriend said that hurt me, the episode of Two And A Half Men I have to catch and holiday pictures that I have to upload on Facebook." This avalanche of thoughts causes
franticness in our already chattering minds.
The gild trap: Author Palash Krishna Mehrotra, best known for The Butterfly Generation, says the consumer culture and credit traps could also trigger anxiety. "We take loans to be ‘happy’. But we realise we are not happy, then we want more money, we work harder, get tired but we cannot stop. It is like being on a treadmill all the time and it can lead to a life filled with anxiety." In a material world, hankering after the objects they lust for makes people take on more than they can handle. Sports psychologist and personal counsellor Tarun Jain explains this by citing his ‘BMW theory.’ Say there is a doctor who dreams of buying a BMW. "The doctor wants to earn Rs 70 lakh by the end of a year to buy the car. So he divides that money by 12 and arrives at how much he should earn. He starts seeing 20 patients every day. His daughter is ill but he has to leave her to go to the clinic; all the time he is anxious and guilty. He cannot go to the movies with his family. By the end of the year, he does manage to buy a BMW. There is an initial euphoria, but his entire year was spent being anxious," says Jain.
Never in the frame: To stay calm, one needs to be in the moment, suggest mind experts. "Earlier there were fewer avenues of entertainment. You would listen to a singer or band’s entire album because acquiring an album was the only way to listen to music. You would buy a book and read it three times. Now you flip channels, innumerable radio stations, watch a film at home and also Facebook at the same time," says Mehrotra. "This distracting engagement with things around us and the interference of technology in our lives leaves us with no energy to enjoy anything in its entirety," he adds.
The urge to control: The entire self-help industry is based on the premise of never giving up. It is true we have the strength to change most things in life, but not everything. This translates into people trying to control events that can’t be controlled. As a generation we are harsher on ourselves. "Anxiety sets in when we outstretch ourselves and somewhere in our minds, we know we may not be able to achieve what we have set out to," says Tarun Jain. The irony is that there is always someone more successful, richer, and supposedly happier – the one with a bigger car, better marriage and a more exotic vacation. "When goals are realistic, they give us positive stress, otherwise they give us anxiety. People are mindlessly buying into the whole ‘living a good life’ industry that cinema and television propagate," adds Jain.
Check if you have any of these worrying signs
1 You see floaters or dots in front of your eyes
2 You can feel your heart beat in your chest
3 You feel an urgent need to twitch your fingers and toes
4 Your neck and back are stiff
5 Your forehead is warm
6 You need to pee in the middle of something important
7 You are sleeping too little or too much
8 You get up in the middle of the night
9 You get unpleasant dreams and wake up tired and fatigued
10 You feel butterflies in your stomach
11 You get nagging aches and pains all over your body
Diary of an anxious person
This is the routine of a Gurgaon-based business executive in her 40s who did not want to be identified
1 I wake up tired, as if I ran a marathon yesterday. I don’t know why. I slept on time and had my eight hours of prescribed sleep. I got up after an unpleasant dream once again (I don’t remember the
2 I read the paper. I feel terrible reading about a Gurgaon boy who was kidnapped and sodomised or the septuagenarian who was raped.
3 Along with my tea, I check my phone for missed calls or messages. More often than not, there are calls from people that I have to return at some point.
4 I do my puja and immediately after that my maid calls to say she will be late. I fret as I have an important project to finish in office and cannot be late.
5 Luckily, the maid isn’t too late and I start for office at the usual time. On the way, I have to get petrol. There, this other guy in another car starts arguing with me because my car wouldn’t start for five minutes.
Finally, I reach office. My boss is in a foul mood and so I am on edge throughout the day. I am able to complete a few things and not able to complete a few others. It is my friend’s birthday today and I have to pick up some wine for him. For that, I have to leave early. So I hurry and try and finish things in office.
6 On the way to my friend’s house, I make official as well as personal courtesy calls.
7 I reach the party and am relieved to grab a glass of cold beer. It really relaxes me.
8 But the next day, I have to go to the gym early and so I can’t stay at the party for too long.
9 Back home, I put an alarm and jot down all the things I have to do tomorrow in my ‘to-do’ diary. Tasks ranging from paying the electricity bill, picking up groceries for a party I am throwing the day after, submitting a report in office, calling a relative who is unwell and checking with friends if they want to catch a movie on the weekend and then booking tickets. Phew!
1 Be content: Tone down your expectations from life and yourself. Learn to be happy with what you have.
2 Get real: Assess your positives and negatives and be sure of what you are capable of achieving. What you dream of or aim for has to match your abilities. Accept that you may have certain limitations. Put in your best and say to yourself: I should be happy with what I can achieve.
3 Multitask: It’s great to multitask but not at the expense of turning into a nervous wreck. Prioritise and go easy. For instance, if you are a journalist, you may be able to submit 10 stories in five days and also go out partying, but you won’t be able to enjoy either your work or your parties.
4 Draw a line: Don’t live life with unrealistic targets. Check yourself before you start.
5 Strike a balance: Rather than chasing a life you are supposed to live, sit and analyse and live the kind of life you want to live.
6 Reflect: Take out 15 minutes each day for self-reflection. Meditation is great. Get an expert to teach you. If you cannot, introspect by yourself. Write down how you want your life to be. Revisit this every month.
7 Take stock: With family, work and social pressures, we tend to lose track of where our lives are going. So sit down and draw up a list of things you have achieved and things you have not. Noting your achievements will help you calm down; they will make you feel positive about yourself.
8 Analyse: Also remember, the work-life balance doesn’t always mean a 50/50 ratio. Sometimes, it is 20/80, sometimes, 60/40. So relax. You are not God.
9 Let go: Some people get worried about the weather on a big day. Or, perhaps the things other people are doing at work, neither of which they can influence. Accept that you can’t control everything. Once you do that, it becomes easier not to worry.
10 Live with your worries: Mindfulness training teaches you to stay in the moment and pay attention to all your mental and physical sensations without attempting to judge or fix them. So learn to live with your worry. It is there. Don’t ignore it or play it down. Accept your emotions. You may not feel like that every day. This is also the way Buddhist monks approach life.
11 Ignorance is bliss: You shouldn’t feel envious looking at your friends’ holiday pictures on Facebook – because you don’t know what happens between her and her spouse inside the four walls of their home. Don’t judge your life on the basis of the way others are living. Everyone has a way that works for them. Find yours. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) realised it the hard way in the second installment of Sex And The City. Her husband Mr Big’s request for them to spend time away from each other (for one day in the week) didn’t mean their relationship wasn’t as good as her friends Charlotte or Miranda’s relationships were. It was just a different way.
Immediate relief for when you start feeling anxious
Shut your eyes and take your mind off from the trigger. Start counting the seconds of your watch or count till 10 or 20. You will stop fretting about your worry for the time being. It will help you temporarily
Yes we know, you want to scoff and say, “It will never work,” but doctors and experts swear by this technique to do away with anxiety. Shut your eyes and inhale and exhale for five minutes, all the while looking at your watch. It will calm you down. Deep breathing works on your nervous system and allows you to relax
Move out of the zone
Get up and move away from the physical space (eg: your workstation). Go and get yourself water or green tea (very calming)
Look afresh at the problem and at your attitude. It will give you a fresh perspective
Identify your personality type and reactions. Some people brood, others get irritable and yet others get angry. Identify your response. When you catch yourself going the ‘anxiety’ way, tap yourself, pinch
yourself and tell yourself to stop
Don’t worry. Poet WH Auden wrote The Age Of Anxiety to describe the anxious times of the the 1930s, but people got out of it. We shall too. Every generation has its set of challenges and humans are intrinsically trained to survive. So stop. Don’t pour yourself another drink, light that cigarette, rush to the fridge for comfort food or type on your smartphone to inform the Twiterrati about this endemic. Relax. This too shall pass. As Bobby McFerrin sings: Don’t Worry Be Happy.
From HT Brunch, April 29
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