Dr, Vijayshree Patil
Guest Blog - My mental health journey Part 2
The first hurdle to overcome in any mental health journey is the aversion to labels. It took me a long time to “accept” that I had the label of “depression” or “anxiety” attached to me. Our society teaches us that mental health conditions are failings or weaknesses and we often internalize these beliefs as shame. But labels need not be self-limiting beliefs. Learning to be aware of our tendencies is an eye-opening process, and with the right guidance in therapy, this knowledge can be a source of power.
Accepting one’s own mental health struggles is one thing, learning to live in a society that often has no space for accepting people that are sensitive or who don’t fit the “norm” is a whole different battle. We live in a world that rewards people that work too hard and burn out, that encourages overachieving at the price of mental health and too often advocates narcissism and an unbalanced lifestyle. Social media accentuates this effect, by nudging us to share only our positive experiences in life. As many people are now beginning to realize, our virtual personas are merely a “highlight reel” of what is essentially a messy, difficult existence. If one keeps comparing the outer projections of people’s lives to one’s internal self, the gap is bound to appear vast. “Why is it that I am not as (rich/beautiful/fit/ successful/hardworking/etc.) as someone else?” is a common refrain that our mind internalizes from the constant comparison elicited by living out our lives online.
In fact, research has increasingly demonstrated that these effects of social media are not unintentional but hardwired into the design of these apps. Essentially, social media platforms benefit from maximizing the amount of time you spend on them. To do so, they rely on hacking the psyche to provide it short-lived hits of dopamine i.e. the feel-good chemical in the brain. Notifications, likes and hearts are examples of such feel-good mechanisms that keep calling our attention back to our devices. This makes us addicted to the highs they provide, but the high fades quickly and we need to keep going back for more. The law of diminishing returns kicks in: as our brain gets used to a certain level of approval and validation, we crave more and more to reach the same level of satisfaction. A newbie instagrammer will be happy with 10 likes from people they know, but once 100 likes become a regular occurrence the brain will crave 1000 and so on and so forth. This creates a dangerously addictive loop. Soon social media becomes like a drug, we latch onto it for relief from our anxiety, but as we do our anxiety keeps going up instead of decreasing.
Awareness that social media can be detrimental to mental health is increasing. However, our responses to this are limited at best. A number of celebrities now post #nomakeup or #nofilter posts to show what they really look like and we see increasing acceptance of people who do not fit a certain body/skin colour/race/gender type. Yet, no matter how #real one tries to be online, the performative aspect never quite disappears from the equation. Even #nomakeup looks can be #flawless when they come from a celebrity, setting an unreasonably high standard for the rest of us. No amount of likes, shares, impassioned comments or brave disclosures online can replace difficult conversations that need to be had with somebody who suffers from depression or anxiety offline. When devices mediate interactions between people, the false idea of connection they create isolates us even further from each other.
Which brings me to the current over-emphasis on positivity. The rates of depression and anxiety in the populace are the highest they’ve ever been, and “think positive, hustle harder” slogans are appearing all over the internet as a response. However, positivity is not a switch you can turn on, especially if you suffer from depression. I have found that for me personally, the best way to reframe my perspective is by acknowledging my negative filter. So instead of saying “This interview is going to be great and I’m going to be awesome”, which sounds absurd and untrue when depressed, it is more effective to say something like “Yes I am feeling nervous and this is going to be challenging, but I have it in me to overcome any hurdles that come my way, and if it doesn’t go well I have it in me to keep going too.”
Self-care is another buzzword doing the rounds lately. The key element of self-care is awareness: this means actively doing something that you know will make you feel more balanced and centred. Scheduling some time for one such mindful activity every day is like refuelling the mind and giving it the reserves to cope with life stressors. Too often, self-care is misinterpreted and used to further indulge and feed our narcissistic tendencies. The road to true positivity, self-care and self-acceptance is long and hard; it cannot be encapsulated in hashtags or trends.
In short, monitoring social media use is key for maintaining our mental health. Life—however difficult it can be at times—is lived in the real world. This means taking time off to focus on building your skills, spending time with friends, family and pets offline, facing the discomfort of talking to a stranger, addressing the conflicts in one’s life without hiding behind a screen, and spending time in nature. In the end, the human experience is the same no matter how uniquely we respond to it: failures and sorrows, anger and despair are as much a part of us as happiness, joy and purpose. When we make room for this full range to emerge as a society and as individuals, without judgment and avoidance, we will break free from the vicious cycle of narcissism that social media traps us in.
Finally, accounts of dealing with mental health online too often present recovery as a clear-cut, linear process. As with everything else we see on the internet, this is simply not true. When people try to present my case as someone who is a fighter or survivor, I always correct them. Depression and anxiety are not things that one conquers forever and puts to rest once and for all, they are conditions that one learns to cope with and manage better and better over time. Recovery is messy and often takes months or even years. The key to not losing hope is to not fall for quick fixes and keep putting in the work. When I was asked to write part two of this blog, I was not in a good mental space, having suffered some recent setbacks in therapy. But getting up and writing this is what showing up for recovery really looks like: putting in one baby step at a time.
Guest Blog Credit : Amruta Prabhu
She is a freelance French-English translator, amateur photographer and film critic.
She shares her travel photos and musings on mental health on her Instagram account @amutedstory and writes about cinema on medium.com/amrutaprabhu