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Pathways to Mental Wellbeing and Resilience

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others.

We have someone today who is a leading voice in theology and psychology. Dr Ramesh Pattani, OBE is currently teaching at the Chinmaya University. He holds three master’s degrees and has a doctorate from Oxford University. He’s also a trustee and the Vice President of the Chinmaya Mission, UK. He’s the Vice President of the Hindu Forum, Britain and he is a leading, highly sought-after counselor and psychotherapist. So, Dr Pattani, in the context of our topic today, what is mental well-being to you?

Dr Ramesh Pattani: So, mental wellbeing or psychological well-being really, on the one hand, it’s thinking about how you deal with the normal stresses of life. So, we are all going through stress one time or the other and sometimes the stress is so enormous like what we experienced in the lockdown, those challenges can create so much stress. So, are you able to cope with that kind of stress? That’s one thing. The other part of it is that: are you able to reach your own potential? So, the two things when we look at it together, on the one hand, it’s about coping with stress, but on the other hand, potentializing your own sense of who you are, what you can achieve, how you can achieve, and being productive in life, and to be able to make a positive contribution to your family, to your friends, to the community, et cetera. So, this is what it means. And we know that during the lockdown there were a lot of challenges which people were facing and we can imagine the consequences it had in terms of our own lives. So, for example, there was a great uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow? Lockdown 1 minute, locking out the other minute, and then locking back again. And a lot of uncertainty about even whether I’m going to get it or not. And then remember that people have lost lives. Imagine those people who lost their lives and their families and how it affected them as well. It was a tremendously grieving time for these people. Social isolation, economic, technical challenges, all kinds of personal challenges were coming. So, it had a lot of stress on people’s minds. Were we able to cope with it or not? This is called mental well-being.

AB: That’s lovely. I know there was uncertainty, but why do you think it had the effect it did on mental health? And why do you think it tested people the way it did? Were we doing something wrong with our lives that we could not cope with that uncertainty?

Dr RP: Yeah, I mean, it’s not about doing anything wrong. It’s the way in which we are in our life, in our normal circumstances. So, under normal circumstances, we are able to cope with the ordinary challenges of life. But then what happens is that when the pressure gets higher and higher and higher, it tests us to the limit. In other words, it’s not just about coping, but it’s also about resilience, how resilient you are, so that even when you’re stressed, you are able to come back to some kind of normality or you are able to function even in the face of big challenges. So, in other words, what I’m saying is that we all have coping mechanisms for coping with life, coping with situations, emotional coping, physical coping as well, and so on. The question is, are these coping mechanisms adequate enough for us to then use in these times of challenges? Some of us have weak coping mechanisms, others have strong ones. And the whole idea in mental well-being is to be able to develop and cultivate these skills in our lives so that even when challenges come, we are able to cope with them.

AB: So, given that the world is changing so much, you’re talking about coping mechanisms. Some of us have strong ones, some of us are weak ones. But given that people, as you said, have lost loved ones, we know that people are still not back at work, some are still worried about their health, and people have financially suffered. How would you suggest we cope with the uncertainty today and going forward?

Dr RP: Two things which I spoke about just now is how do we actually build up our resistance to cope with stress? That’s one part of it. The other part is how we can become more resilient in terms of the kind of way in which we recover from some of the shocks which have really come during COVID. And people have experienced real shocks in their lives, losing jobs, losing lives in their family, friends, et cetera. Two things we need to consider. How do we go about looking at our own lives, looking at our own selves, and saying asking ourselves this very important question: are my mechanisms of coping good enough for me to continue my life, moving forward with whatever I need to do in terms of resolving all these challenges through my belief, my attitude, my actions? How can I do that? That’s number one. Number two is how can I develop long-term resilience so that even if the shock comes next time, then I know that I’ve got this resilient self which is able to cope with all these things. And then we need to think about, okay, what is it which I must do in order to develop these things? Isn’t it? So, there are practical questions as to what I can do to do that. 

First of all, are we able to recognize stress? Some people don’t even recognize it. If I tell you, are you feeling stressed just now, you will say but what do you mean by that? What am I feeling? But generally, I think people recognize that I am feeling some stress. So, the first thing is to recognize stress. And there are many different ways in which we can try to understand it. Number one is to think about the physical aspect of stress. There is this heartbeat that starts increasing. As soon as you think of being challenged by something, your blood pressure goes up. You feel very agitated. You feel as if something is wrong. Something is wrong. You can be sleeping less because now you’ve been stressed throughout the day. You can’t even sleep because you’re constantly kind of thinking about it. You eat maybe even more or less sometimes. Somebody may start drinking or smoking just to cope with it. Because of that physical difficulty. Mentally you start making mistakes, you become more confused, you forget things, you avoid making decisions, et cetera. And you have this crisis. You begin to get anxious about everything emotionally. That anxiety, irritability, rapid mood swings. All these are ways in which we can detect stress in our lives. So, the first thing is to learn how to detect stress. And also, to admit to yourself that yes, I am actually in a state of stress, I need to do something about it. So, then it means that, okay, stress is there. 

So, there are two things here. Are you able to cope with the stress? And if you are coping with stress, then what is it that you are doing? Or if you are not able to cope with the stress, then of course it will lead to distress. You will start getting distressed. So, here’s the stress in my life. I’ve come across a challenging situation and therefore that distress then begins to develop as a state of anxiety. That I become anxious… that all the time I’m very anxious about something. Because I’m having this fear of some kind of panic attack. Sometimes people get these phobias about various different things. People get OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It begins to manifest like that. You see, the stress is then kind of expressing itself in various different ways as anxiety. On the other hand, people begin to express or experience distress in terms of depression. So, on the one hand, you can be stressed and you can go into a state of anxiety. Or you kind of experience stress and that distress becomes depression. So, on the one hand, if you are not able to cope, then it becomes distressing, anxiety, depression begins to arise and some people actually then go into unhealthy ways of coping. Now, what does it mean— unhealthy ways? Because I’m feeling the stress, what do I do? I take out my bottle of whiskey.

AB: Chocolate, I eat chocolate.

Dr RP: There you are. So, people have got these ways of coping with stress. I’m feeling stressed, I need to open the fridge and get some food out or I don’t feel like eating and I’m going to have a drink. And that means that you’re not actually dealing with the problem as such, you are just kind of reducing the symptom for the time being. Now, why do you eat chocolate is because you feel comforted by the chocolate and that comfort is a temporary solution for you to say okay, now I’m feeling better. But that is an unhealthy way of coping with it. But it means that there are healthy ways of coping, which means that you use the skills which you have developed to cope with stress. And there are many ways in which you can do that and we can talk about that as well as to yeah, what are you supposed to be doing? 

And remember, what is the most important element of you as a person is your mind. It is all in the mind. So, it begins in the mind or it can even begin in the body. But really speaking, the mind is the one which is going to be able to manage stress. So, we know that the mind is connected to a sense of who we are, our individuality, four sensations in the body, perception, and a deeper subliminal layer which comes into this kind of experience. So, with all of this together, the mind is the kind of processor. So, which means that it is through the mind that we are going to be able to cultivate some of these qualities which are to do with healthy coping. Healthy coping means that you are managing the mind in the best way possible with the best kind of solution and it becomes solution-focused and therefore you do something about it and therefore you’re coping with it in a healthy manner.

AB: So that very beautifully takes us to my next question. Can you actually give us some tips, something that we can actually physically do ourselves to cope when we get to that situation? Because very often there’s panic, there’s anxiety and then like you said, once you recognize it, sometimes it’s already quite late, we’ve already gone into anxiety or depression or something like that.

Dr RP: Yes. So, the first thing is to absolutely recognize it. That’s the first step. If you kind of recognize that you’re feeling stressed, then what you’ve got to do is to realize where this stress is coming from, to recognize that there is a trigger that is making me stressed. Now, it may be something that is absolutely of course connected to your life, but there are certain aspects of your life that are triggering this stress response and we can kind of respond to that in many different ways. Like I was saying, healthy unhealthy coping. 

So, first thing is to realize when stress is causing a problem and like you said that sometimes we leave it and say okay, no, it’s going to go away but it doesn’t go away. Then we get into a state of anxiety or depression. So, recognize, realize that you have a problem with some kind of situation and then secondly to identify the causes for this particular stress which is arising, try to identify the underlying causes. So, what is it that is causing [this stress]? For example, if somebody is having a problem in a relationship within the immediate family, your significant other, your spouse or your friend or whatever it is, then you recognize that there is something about this relationship which is causing me stress. And therefore, you try to find out what it is about this relationship which is causing stress to me, anxiety to me, or making me feel depressed. And therefore, you then try to find out the solution to that. How to deal with stress in terms of that is to find a practical solution, to give it time and to give it focus, to give it attention. If you are able to, release that anxiety in your mind or create the balance in your mind through coping with it, by thinking about it, reflecting about it, talking about it to your friend for example, and then finding a solution in which you feel comfortable and the other person feels comfortable as well. So, there are many different ways in which you can do that. 

The third thing is that you need to kind of review your lifestyle. Basically, it is a bigger kind of issue within which this stress is happening. How do you live your life? Are you taking on too much in your life? Maybe you’re doing 100 different things and the stress begins to arise because there is a demand which is placed on your time and effort and energy and there is a kind of coping. Are you able to cope with that demand or not? And people often feel that they are not able to cope with the demands which are placed on them. Think about the whole of your lifestyle. Looking at your life holistically and seeing where the imbalances are, and therefore not only providing solutions to specific issues which are causing stress, but to look at the whole lifestyle and see where are the weaknesses within my whole lifestyle in terms of your living, your nutrition, your food, your relationship, your social support system, your social network, your family relations? All these are really very important for you to think about.

There are specific things which I can mention that you can do to positively maintain mental health on the one hand and how to cultivate your coping skills, as it were. So, I mentioned the coping skills as to how you can do that. The whole idea of lifestyle changes and the way in which you make meaning about your life, find purpose in life that gives you long-term resilience: is that if you’re focused in your life, you know what you like, what your passion is. And you follow that and you say to yourself, life is full of meaning for me, and therefore I’ve got the energy. I’ve got the mental energy. I’ve got this kind of positivity about me which is making me face all the challenges, even if obstacles come in my way. Because I’ve got a very clear idea about my meaning and purpose and values that I can shift through this and I can meet the challenges, and I can remove the obstacles and I can work with problems that arise in my life. So, there is a kind of way in which we can begin to develop resilience. So, look at your life, look at your lifestyle, look at your sense of meaning, purpose, values, and begin to make it come together in such a powerful way that life becomes absolutely beautiful for you to live. And when that happens, you want to get up very early in the morning and start doing things. Why? Because there is some meaning and purpose to my life. So, that is developing resilience, right?

AB: Right.

Dr RP: And of course, [as for] the positive aspects we can also talk about: what are the positive ways in which you can begin to create this mental health, mental well-being in yourself. So, as I was saying, meaning, purpose, values, having a passion for things. Number one, become creative in your life. Creativity can be a big boost for your sense of who you are, self-esteem, creativity in terms of yourself, your work, your workplace, your relationships. And it also helps us to feel less stressed because when you are engaged in doing something creative, like you know that you are a very creative person. You deal with artists and people. You know how much that contributes to your sense of well-being, right? That’s number one. 

Number two is that you need to think about: I want to actually learn something new because I have seen a meaningful way of being engaged with life and this is something fascinating and you should be curious about it, you want to engage with it and that occupies your mind. It engages it in a positive way because you’re learning something new. So, look for things which you can learn. It may be something very simple, like how to draw a face, for example, drawing and sketching. It can be a wonderful thing to do. 

Number three: be active in your life. Physical, regular exercise can be… It has been shown physiologically that it alters the chemistry of the brain, when you do exercise and when you have that kind of mood and confidence that comes out of doing exercise. And it helps you to feel better, to be able to say to yourself— I’m feeling very good because I’ve done this exercise now, so that’s another way. And then of course, our nutrition, food, be careful how you kind of eat or drink and that can also increase our energies. There are very good energetic foods, as you know, that eating healthy also contributes to a healthy mind. And of course, there’s a whole philosophy behind it and maybe someday we can talk about but really speaking, eating healthy and then you have to think about: are you getting enough sleep? Sleep is very important because it kind of has this tremendous resetting of the mind and the brain. And so that if you have a good night’s sleep, you know the difference between a good night’s sleep and a bad night’s sleep. And when you wake up in the morning feeling energetic because you’ve had a good sleep, you feel rested, you feel calm and you are able to face the challenge of the day; again— another contributor to mental health. And finally, just trying to get hold of things which you enjoy doing, the longer you’re happy throughout the day. And it could be something very simple, looking out of the window and looking at nature, looking at the tree and looking how it changes over the seasons and connecting to nature, for example. Some people find that absolutely amazing and enjoyable. Going out for a walk by yourself, walking, mindfully on the path, looking at the trees, looking and smelling and seeing and feeling your body, walking— just a simple thing of going out for a walk. Enjoy the things which you do, healthy things which you enjoy doing. And that becomes some very, kind of supportive ways, of having this positive mental health.

AB: So, you’re saying for positive mental health, just very quickly summarizing it. You said be creative with your life, learn something new, look at nutrition, look at sleep, and engage with nature.

Dr RP: That’s right.

AB: Those are five sort of simple tools.

Dr RP: Those simple tools which everybody can engage. You see Anshu, it’s not difficult to maintain our mental health and in case as we know that some people are not able to cope, unfortunately, but that means that you should get professional support as well. In the sense that if you’re feeling anxious and you’re unable to cope with that or depression, then don’t fear to go to a specialist, to a professional who can support you, who can help you during this time to give you enough support, for you to then start functioning on your own. There are people there, professionals and I do that myself, I do counseling and psychotherapy, and I meet clients who have become really very anxious or very depressed about things. And slowly, slowly we work through whatever [that we] need to work through, and then we kind of think about what we are doing and what the person wants to achieve, make different choices in their life…like the choices which we mentioned about, the five or six different ways of being in the world. And therefore, then what happens is that the client slowly begins to come to terms with their lives, to adjust according to this kind of reflective thinking which they have done with the counselor and then they go out and are able to face the world.

AB: On that note, about two years ago I’d have asked you a question and it was something very simple you said, which really helped make a difference: where I had asked you how to give me an easy way to keep coming back to the present moment. Do you want to just talk about that so they can help others? And it was something so simple but we forget, right, as human beings.

Dr RP: Sometimes the reason why we want to be in the present moment is because this is the moment of power, the present moment in which you are experiencing now is your present, your gift? Yes, the gift of your life. And if you are able to stay in the present, you can enjoy this gift of presence with your experience and you are able to make the most of it. In other words, remaining in the present moment means to be fully aware and fully present to yourself and the world around you. How to train to do that yourself? Just focus on your breathing, breathe in, breathe out. Just take one minute to focus on your breathing and that brings you immediately into the present moment. And remember, we have been breathing ever since the time we were born. It is something so close to us, always available. I don’t have to go and look out for a special place or a special thing or a special image, something which is always with me, I can get connected to that and that allows me to come right into the present moment, feel present myself to myself and the world. And this is such a beautiful gift— to have to be remaining in the present moment with full awareness, with full confidence, with full experience of whatever is going on.

AB: Yes. And you know, it sounds very simple and we all say… I remember when you told me that I’m thinking to myself, of course I breathe, I do my pranayama. But it’s just remembering that through the day and the breathing that you do through the day, you just come back to yourself and to the present moment. It’s been so helpful.

Dr RP: Everybody tries it. And as many times during the day that you come back to this present moment, it becomes a beautiful moment to be with, to be exploring. And of course, that means that we have kind of gone through this cultivation, this coping mechanism— we have cultivated resilience. And then you are able to enjoy it with full meaning, with a full purpose lesson in your life and you have this tremendous kind of enthusiasm, energy to be alive, to be doing things.

AB: That’s wonderful. So, my last question to you is, do you have any advice before we wrap up?

Dr RP: My simple advice is— we look so much after the body every day. We wash it and prepare it and clothe it in the best way possible. Do the same thing with your mind, look after your mind, and do something every day which is going to make you a resilient person, who is able to cope with all these challenges. And we’ve given many tips for that today. And therefore, my advice, look after the mind as much as you look after the body. And this means doing something every day which is going to make you mentally well, mentally healthy, and to be able to enjoy your life.

AB: Thank you so much, Dr Pattani. That was such an enlightening chat. Thank you. 

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