Watch Deepak Gopalakrishnan in conversation with mental health counsellor, Vijay Gopal

Last Sunday, Deepak Gopalakrishnan from Team THC, interviewed mental counsellor, Vijay Gopal and got him to answer (the many) audience questions around anxiety.  If you couldn’t be there, we have a recording of the session and the takeaways.  We received much positive feedback and we’re thrilled we could help the THC community in this small way.

What is Anxiety?

Most of us think of anxiety in terms of its symptoms – shortness of breath or a racing heart.  Instead, Vijay, has this thought-provoking definition

Anxiety is the energy you feel when something you value is at stake. It is what you feel when you are on the cusp of growth.

He quoted Stanford health psychologist and lecturer Kelly McGonnagal, who says that ‘a meaningful life is a life with some anxiety’.  How you perceive ‘anxiety’, however, is key to how you deal with it. Research shows that if you are ‘anxious about feeling anxious’, then the negative effects of anxiety will be greatly heightened.

Now that you know it is important to accept that a certain amount of anxiety is essential, even important for your life, how do you deal with it?

1. Understand Different Anxiety Responses

Anxiety can trigger two kinds of responses:

  • A threat response, which signals that your survival is at risk, triggering a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. Your body prepares to defend you – your heart pumps faster and your immune systems are heightened
  • A challenge response, which mimics some of the symptoms of a threat response but there are important differences. The ratio of DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone, a hormone produced by your body’s adrenal glands) to cortisol increases. This ratio is called the growth index and it makes you more focused and increases concentration. Your body is under stress, but it is the kind of stress that prepares you for peak performance.

2. Trigger the Challenge Response

How can you ensure that you when you are anxious, you trigger the challenge response that helps you perform better, and not the threat response that makes you panic? Here are Vijay’s tips:

Acknowledge the anxiety

Learn to recognise and acknowledge the anxiety. Say “Yes, my heart is beating, or my breathing is shallow”. Accept it and know that it is temporary.

Unpack the anxiety

Ask yourself ‘Why am I anxious?’ What is this feeling telling me about my work – try and get to the reason behind the anxiety, and understand that it is preparing you to be focused and perform better

Avoid black and white thinking

‘If my project is accepted, I’ll be the best and if it is not, I am a complete loser.’ That may sound familiar, but it is not factual. The truth is never all or nothing, or black or white.  Even if you have hit a roadblock, there is life beyond that and you know it.

Avoid discounting or magnifying

In this time of 24×7 information, we are constantly magnifying the negative and discounting the positive. Learn to focus on the positives in your life, everyday.

Stop personalisation or labelling yourself

We all make the mistake of viewing ourselves through the lens of one incident or emotion. Reframe your view by being factual and not letting that become your identity. Move from saying ‘I am an anxious person’ to ‘I had a bout of anxiety today’

Vijay quoted his own example of failing thrice in engineering college when he was suffering from depression. He would say ‘I’m a failure’. It was only later that he learnt to be specific and say ‘I failed thrice’, which is factual and completely different from merging failure with his identity.

3. Switch your Frame of Mind (Literally)

When you are not engaged in any specific activity your brain is said to be in ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN).  Being in this mode is also associated with being creative. When you engage in a specific task, you switch to the ‘Task Positive Network’ (TPN), which demands that our attention be directed to the external environment.

It is not possible to be in both mental states, Default Mode Network’ (DMN) and Task Positive Network’ (TPN), at the same time. The best way to cope with anxiety is to toggle between the two states.

If you are stuck with long lists of tasks to do and are feeling overwhelmed in the TPN state of mind, try switching to the DMN state by thinking about the bigger picture, revisiting your vision or your accomplishments or even thinking about the positive relationships in your life.  While this may seem counter-intuitive, Vijay says it works.

The best way to avoid feeling bogged down is to think of something in our lives that has higher purpose.

Here are two exercises that activate your DMN and enable you to deal with anxiety the right way:

Exercise 1

Vijay maintains that this is one of the most powerful exercises you can do to start feeling stronger and more positive. Write about the values that you live your life by. How did they enter your life? Who is a role model for you? If you need help, use this free website https://www.viacharacter.org/ .

Exercise 2

Write a few lines about what kind of person you want to be in the future. Don’t stop at saying ‘I want to be a great designer or musician’. Drill further. What will be unique about you? What legacy will you leave in the world?

Similarly, if you are flooded with negative thoughts while daydreaming in the DMN state, switch to doing a small and simple task, that will help redirect your focus.

4. The Importance of Sharing

Vijay also stressed the importance of having a community, however small, where you can share your thoughts. If you trying to implement an idea or habit, share it and talk about it. In the process of sharing, the idea becomes deeper embedded in your psyche and it is easier for you to transform it into a mindset.

Some Questions from the Audience

Q1. The first set of questions were around people feeling anxious about their future – will I get laid off, will I find another project, etc.

Vijay: The human race is notoriously bad at predicting the future. The current circumstances are testimony to that. Shift your attention from the outcome to the process. Move from ‘What will happen?’ to ‘What am I doing now?’

People who focus on what they are doing today instead of worrying about the future will be much better placed to deal with whatever future comes.

Q2. There is this pressure to ‘maximise the pandemic’ and use the time to learn new skills – am I lagging behind?

Vijay: This is the classic TPN thinking we discussed before – a barrage of data, tasks, to-dos that make you anxious. The way to deal with it is to move to DMN mode with the exercises we spoke of earlier.  When you are feeling suffocated and overwhelmed, first do something that feels good and lifts you to a higher emotional plane. This will get you to a better place mentally and then you can make the right decision about what you should be doing.

Q3. What do I do to feel motivated? As a creative person, I can’t give my best when I am feeling low.

Vijay: Think of your intrinsic motivation like a light bulb. Do not make the mistake of thinking of motivation like a fuel tank, which must be replenished externally.  If you are feeling low, it is similar to a layer of dust on the light bulb and you have to find way to wipe it off. Do not frame the problem in such a way that you expect to find motivation via an external source. The method to deal with it is the same. Acknowledge your feelings, don’t personalise them and try and switch to the DMN state.

To get started, break your task down into smaller steps and take the first step that is too small to fail.

Let me give you a personal example. I was writing my PHD thesis and I was feeling overwhelmed. So I first set up my desk with my computer, pen and paper. Then I wrote my Table of Contents.  I took tiny steps that slowly started making me feel more in control.

We would like to thank Vijay for taking the time to do this. You can contact him here. A big thank you also to all the attendees who contributed to Sampark Foundation.

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