Withstanding adversity


 A few months ago I was invited to judge a short movie competition for young students organized by the Rotaract club of Nilgiris West and give a talk to the young people at the meeting. The topic was mental health. Judging the competition proved to be tough; all the short movies were very interesting in their content and some were excellently made.

Here’s what struck me. A common theme running through most of the short films was about youngsters experiencing ‘depression’ on facing perceived failure or judgment from peers/family/society.  It was clear that this was an important and relevant area of interest or preoccupation with the young people. In my talk following the short movies I tried to focus on why the concept of ‘failure’ needs to be rewritten and why it’s important to ‘fail’ to learn life lessons.

Over the past few months, with the lockdown and anxiety surrounding Covid 19, a similar pattern seems to emerge. I was invited to a webinar on health/work/life balance organized by Pehla Sukh, India Wellness Initiative. We received over 800 questions prior to the webinar and almost every one of the shortlisted questions was related to ‘stress’, ‘depression’, and anxiety’.  This in combination with the recent spate of suicides over the last month, (two of who I knew very well, were only in their thirties and early forties), leads me to think that there is a kind of collective societal anxiety that is unrelenting and mismanaged.

I am not a psychiatrist and would not attempt to treat or manage clinical depression, but I am fairly certain that many of us today will do very well with meaningful conversations, especially surrounding the meaning of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. There seems to be a generalized angst regarding how we see ourselves in comparison with others and in the context of what is expected of us from others in society. Why this pressure? Are we all not individuals in our own right capable of expressing ourselves in a way we see fit? Do we all need to adhere to societies expectation of what is ‘normal’ in terms of success? What is the definition of success anyway? A flush bank account? An enormous house? An ostentatious car? A  high level job? The number of social media followers? Not that there is anything wrong with any of these aspirations in an of themselves and they can certainly be pursued if one so desires, but, there is no guarantee that any of it will bring happiness or even life satisfaction worth talking about.

The conversation about success, life satisfaction and meaning needs to happen. With the onslaught of social media ‘influencers’ talking about ‘making it big’, it is easy to fall prey to the idea that everyone needs to be ‘successful’ in the way defined by society. Parental pressure may be another reason young people feel less than ‘enough’ and succumb to the anxiety caused by driving too hard or expecting too much, even from themselves.

Having good social connections and at least a few authentic relationships matter in this regard. People who don’t judge you but support and accept you the just way you are matters. If you are fortunate, and if you have put in the effort and investment, (because authentic relationships do require effort and investment), you will have a few such people around you. In times of stress, these authentic relationships are very valuable.

More importantly, the ability to accept oneself even while trying to better oneself matters.  Not allowing other people’s freely given advice, in the pretext of ‘in your best interest’ to adversely influence you is critical.

Stress and anxiety can lead to depression. While depression is very real and may require professional help in the form of psychotherapy, medication, CBT and so on, engaging with meaningful relationships and establishing a supportive environment goes a long way in mitigating stress.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back after set-back. Not just bounce back to your original state but, become even better. Since ‘failure’ is a part of life and every single one of us faces versions of ‘failure’ throughout our lives we need build resilience. Is it possible to build resilience? Some people seem just more resilient than others. What are the common traits and practices of such people? If you have not read ‘Mans search for meaning’ by Victor Frankle, it’s worth reading to understand resilience.

Here are some things we can do to develop resilience –

  • Dichotomy of control – Understand what you can and cannot control. Being able to identify what is within your control and trying and change it if required while at the same time letting go of the things one has no control over is an important life view that will serve us all well. In this Covid Pandemic for instance, there’s not much we can do about the decisions governments make regarding lockdowns. There is however our ability to control our own behavior by firstly not giving in to the contagion of fear, maintaining and improving our own immunity by eating healthy, exercising, managing stress, preventing infection to the best of our ability and so on. We can stay responsible for our own health and wellbeing even if we can’t control what is going on around us.
  • There is a term in ancient Greek Philosophy called ‘Amor fati’ loosely translated as – love your fate. This attitude of taking on a challenge, accepting it as part of life and even embracing it is an  ‘attitude’ one can develop with practice.
  • Surround yourself with authentic, supportive relationships. Social connectedness with the right people can be of great support especially in times of stress. Nurturing such relationships during the long haul, even when you don’t ‘need’ them will ensue they remain when you do. Relationships take effort and time. Take that time and make the effort to maintain good relationships
  • Practice self-care. Neglecting oneself by pushing the boundaries of what is advisable health wise for instance or not taking time to cook healthy meals, read, meditate or get help when required can leave us depleted. Have a sound self-care practice. Set aside time to exercise, meditate; take the time to nourish yourself both physically and emotionally. Have a routine. We have to take care of ourselves first if we want to take care of others or withstand testing time.
  • Develop self-awareness. Understanding oneself and ones needs is important if we want to be fulfilled. Developing self-awareness is a journey. As we grow in this journey we understand ourselves better, let go of the things or people that don’t serve us well, pay attention to what we truly need and discover what we need to do to achieve it. Sometimes, this journey may be uncomfortable as we discover things about ourselves we don’t like or understand. It’s worth the effort as it makes us more self-reliant and confident.
  • Grow in self- confidence. All the above will help one grow in self-confidence. When we lack self-confidence we are inevitably drawn into societal/parental/peer pressure. We don’t serve our own needs but instead are in a constant state of unrest as we look for acceptance and validation in unlikely places. There’s nothing wrong with validation for your efforts. Sometimes it may not come in the time you expect it or from the people you expect it and that has to be accepted too.
  • Stay focused. Stay focused on the best route to take to manage the stressful time. You may get plenty of advice on what to do and how to do it. Growing in self-confidence as mentioned above helps us make and stick with our own decisions after contemplating advice if necessary. Stay focused on your self-care, your routine and your own growth. Stay focused on your internal radar.
  • Reflect and redirect when necessary – Even as we struggle with decisions or difficult times, we may need to change course along the way. We need to constantly reflect and redirect our efforts. This takes some level of self-awareness and also humility. Accepting our own mistakes or poor judgment, getting help and course correcting is better than bullishly hanging on to an unsound resolution just because you started out with it.

Difficult times are a given. Riding the tide is a challenge but can be managed successfully if we stay mindful of some of the common practices to develop resilience. These will help us thrive instead of just survive.

Dr Sheela Nambiar MD, Obgyn,

Lifestyle Medicine Physician & Fitness Consultant


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