My mental health, and yours, in the time of protests

A psychologist talks about how to engage while caring for your mental health during political protests.

I am not a veteran protester. I am a ‘reclusive type’—not given to group participation, and with a negligible presence on social media. I’m constantly in danger of succumbing to cynicism and hopelessness as a way of protecting myself from the pain of what I witness around me, both in my daily work as a psychotherapist and in response to current trends in society. 

So when I stepped out for a protest and got to a street in Delhi on a cold, grey, unhealthy-AQI (air quality index)  day, it took courage. I was there to register my dissent against the ideology and policies of a government I didn’t vote for.

Doing something like this—in the absence of police permission, under the threat of possible lathi charge and tear gas use—takes courage anyway. But for me, it was also my way of going against the grain. It meant taking a stand that involved removing myself from my social isolation—choosing to act in place of feeling a silent, simmering anxiety and pessimism about what we have come to as a people.  

To me, this was a sign of my mental health. 

Mental health is not about calm. It is about acknowledging that which is; it’s about reality, both internal/emotional and external/relational. To be able to experience emotions, have reactions which fit with the stimuli—even if they are muddled or mixed up— is mental health. To feel grief at a loss; anger at a trespass; love at an attachments; excitement at anticipation are signs of it. 

I was aware of feeling anger, sadness, fear, and guilt—a combination that is potent enough to imbalance anyone’s emotional stability, yet, it isn’t mental ill-health that I’m experiencing. Falling into a sustained state of despair, hopelessness, and helplessness—these are the inner experiences that underpin a decline in mental health, especially into depression and thoughts of giving up. 

The political and social reality right now may seem very far away to you or may be experienced as very personal. This depends on factors like your own stance towards these issues and location in society. How close you feel you are to it determines how distressing it is for you; I know from my clinical experience that young people work very hard to tranquilize themselves from what is hurting them and try hard to ‘make it go away’. We have so much more available for this purpose now than ever before— smartphones and social media; alcohol and apathy; drugs and denial. While these may be a good way to detach, unfortunately, they do not represent or lead to mental wellbeing in any way. 

Alternatively, we have the option of remaining engaged but splitting our emotions and separating out those we love from those we hate—while not noticing the uncomfortable fact that these categories are not mutually exclusive; this is a classic polarizing process. This creates a sense of belonging to a group and ideology but it’s a fake calm, one that denies the complexity of people’s experiences and of their history. 

There’s a third way to engage—ensure your voice is heard both by supporters and detractors, and be counted as part of the process. To me, this is possibly the healthiest approach, even if an exhausting and emotionally intense one. 

No matter what option we pick, they all have in common distress, anxiety and intense emotion underneath. What course of action we decide to engage in comes down to the choices we want to make, and what we can live with. 

As protesters of any age and background, we have to ask ourselves these serious and pertinent questions everyday—what is it that I am protesting against? What do I feel strongly for? Which of my values are being trespassed? What do I feel about this? 

These questions are essential for us as thinking individuals, in its absence we end up being at the mercy of:

  • Guilt. Which is not enough reason for actively protesting, nor is it sustainable in nature, and/or

  • Group-think. Groups are well known to be impulsive and given to primitive binary forms of thinking—us/them; good/bad. Feeling overwhelmed by a need to belong can easily push us into going along with the actions of a group that don’t necessarily align with or represent our inner state. 

Since I became involved in this wave of ‘All-I-want-for-Christmas-is-a-new-government’, I have seen women-only protests (Shaheen Bagh); sitting-down protests (Nizammuddin); people-reciting-poetry protests; artists-singing protests (India Gate); and students and intellectuals who have stepped out of their homes, wanting to be counted as part of the wave (Jantar Mantar). It has become clear that this is going to be a long winter, and we will need to find ways to sustain our energy to continue having our voices heard.

There are different ways of being involved and you can only do what you can do at that point in time. Because we are in it for the long haul, so most importantly, pace yourself. 

When I am exhausted physically and emotionally – I try to find ways to help recharge my energy; I was pleased to find support online

Here’s a list that I made for myself: 

  • Food, water, and rest.

  • Taking a break from Twitter and the news—it will still be there three days later.

  • The warmth of my immediate family and friends; these ties will outlast the political unrest.

  • Connecting with others who support what you’re doing. 

  • Exercise—running, yoga or dance. There is a feedback effect that takes place from the body to the mind; the experience of strength in the body is transferable to amplifying the strength of resolve. 

  • Last and strangely enough—wearing boots. Boots have often been appropriated by the stronger faction and belong to the archetype of armies that march over a weaker people. But a pair of boots can belong to anyone who can afford them. They add weight to every step, improve your posture, and there is a strength of determination that comes with it. Besides, I hate being cold and they’re  good to protect my feet.

Dr Nupur Dhingra Paiva is a clinical psychologist and author. 

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