Starting 2021 Right: Mental Health Advice from Neerja Birla

Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Education Trust (ABET) in India and the Mpower initiative - promoting mental health and wellbeing in the most holistic manner conceivable, in this interview with Youth Time discusses the COVID-19 pandemic from a different angle.

She elaborates on the positive sides of spending quality time with ourselves, loved ones and what this world crisis taught us about the importance of understanding, accepting and supporting each-other.

Read on for more insights on our healthy mental wellbeing and how to positively look forward to 2021, despite the far-reaching challenges that 2020 brought to all of us.

Mrs. Birla, in our previous conversation we talked about the possibilities that the world is staring at a mental health crisis due to the emotional and psychological impacts of the pandemic. Whereas, this time, as we are at the very beginning of the year, we have chosen to discuss COVID-19 from a brighter angle, as much as we possibly can. How would you wrap up 2020 on a happier note?

Can you please elaborate some psychological benefits from some time alone, from more time spent with our loved ones, or from some time without the daily, sometimes stressful activities?

Neerja Birla / Photo: Aditya Birla Education Trus
Neerja Birla / Photo: Aditya Birla Education Trus

Stress increases the risk of insomnia, irritability, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, high blood sugar, heart attack, a weakened immune system and low sex drive amongst many others.

Taking away some of our debilitating daily stresses, therefore, can make a huge difference to our lives.

Spending quality time with ourselves allows us to step back from life and de-stress. It helps us reboot our brain, improve concentration, focus on priorities, and increase productivity and creativity.

Indulging in a hobby, acquiring a new skill, meditating, listening to music or reading a book can all be therapeutic.

Time spent with loved ones helps us create stronger emotional bonds and relationships and increases the feelings of wellbeing and safety.

It also helps us develop coping mechanisms and actually reduces the possibility of developing anxiety or depression.

There are other methods of de-stressing as well. For example, at Mpower, we have introduced a group programme called the Dose Of Happiness. D.O.S.E refers to the four primary feel-good brain chemicals.

By using the creative processes of Art and Movement therapies, the programme aims to improve physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

The four sessions include: Voice and Expression, which can help with the release of Dopamine (the Reward Molecule), Connect and Reflect, which helps secret Oxytocin (the Bond, Love and Trust Molecule), Nostalgia that can help produce Serotonin (the Confidence Molecule), and Five Emotions Five Actions that can help release Endorphins (the Pain Relieving Molecules).

Unfortunately, many people are suffering and will suffer from the possible long-term mental health impacts of COVID-19. What this world crisis taught us about the importance of understanding, accepting and supporting each-other? What’s the impact of these positive feelings on our mental wellbeing?  

The COVID-19 crisis has taught us so many big lessons. We’ve understood the importance of ‘real’ connections and that virtual friends cannot replace the human connection.

And yet, it has become important for us to stay in touch with relatives, friends and colleagues by way of video calls, phone calls or virtual meets in order to relieve the feelings of loneliness, restlessness, anger, stress and anxiety that we may experience.

Sharing information, talking about our fears and feelings, offering words of comfort and strength, and helping each other deal with the panic and the challenges has made us realize the true value of relationships and of supporting each other.

Times when we reached out to our loved ones to make us feel loved and supported.


It’s Ok Not To Be Ok

One of the most important things I always remember from our interview together is you saying It is ok not to be ok but it is not ok not to seek help”. What are some of the most important methods/ways for one suffering from mental health issues to seek help and what’s the importance of feeling the support from the others? Please give us your thoughts on this. 

Mental health awareness and literacy is vital to seeking help. Individuals, families, educational institutions and communities must learn to identify and red-flag signs of mental health issues.

Taking the help of family and friends in dealing with mental health concerns is critical. By doing so, we can also effectively fight society’s age-old stigmas attached to mental health.

We should not hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional when necessary.

All in all, mental health concerns should never be ignored. We must be prepared ourselves and encourage others as well to take all the steps necessary for the sake of our mental wellbeing.

Woman celebrating without mask
Woman celebrating without mask

Reckoning that we can’t move to positivity nor acceptance without experiencing and expressing sadness, anger and anxiety, could you please tell us the best ways to deal with them? After all, they are all emotions, albeit passing ones.

Failures and setbacks are part and parcel of life. Sooner or later, we all encounter negative emotions like sadness, grief, anger, anxiety. Sweeping them under the carpet from the fear of society’s stigmas only makes it worse.

Transitioning from negative or debilitating feelings to acceptance of the situation and developing a positive attitude is critical. Developing robust coping mechanisms to do so is a vital life skill.

Studies show that acceptance has a blunting effect on the negative emotional reactions to stressful events and leads to elevated levels of mental wellbeing.

Positive thinking refers to the desire to take steps that can alleviate negative emotions. It requires focusing on the good in any given situation.

It not only ensures physical wellbeing like lower blood pressure, greater pain tolerance, stress management, reduced risk of heart attacks and longer life spans, it also boosts our mental wellbeing by improving our mood, enhancing our problem-solving abilities, developing our coping mechanisms and combatting anxiety and depression.

A positive outlook allows us to live with the belief – This too shall pass. 


Making An Impact

What impacts more profoundly our mental wellbeing? Habits, venting our feelings, our surroundings? Can you please share a few tips on how to positively look forward to 2021?  

Enjoying oneself
Enjoying oneself

Research says that a structured routine and good habits can improve productivity and mental health. We must all strive for a disciplined schedule that allows us timely sleep, an exercise routine, healthy eating habits, fixed work hours, time for the family and some personal time.

Holding emotions in, especially negative ones of sadness, fear, failure or conflict, can be extremely harmful. Venting them appropriately can be cathartic and alleviate stress and tension.

Whether you talk to someone, cry it out or write down your feelings and thoughts – you will feel lighter and experience an immediate sense of relief.

Our surroundings make a huge difference to our lives and state of mind as well. For example, urban living involves being in closed and crowded spaces and dealing with crazy routines that induce enormous stress.

Even our social environment matters. How good our work environment is vis-à-vis workspace facilities, company policies and camaraderie with our colleagues has a role to play in our wellbeing. The same applies to our home lives and our personal relationships.

In 2021, we need to make sincere efforts to improve the surroundings that we live in. Taking time out to be with nature, taking time out to relax and destress, and cultivating mental-health-positive surroundings in our work and home lives should be our new year resolution.

Photos: Aditya Birla Education Trust; Shutterstock

Previously Youth Time talked to Birla about the phenomena of Fear of Missing out and if the world was staring at a Mental Health Crisis, in May 2020, due to COVID-19.

Is the World staring At a Mental Health Crisis? A Perspective From a Mental Health Activist

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