Conversations around Mental Health
Since 1992, October 10th has been designated as World Mental Health Day, an initiative by the World Federation for Mental Health, and supported by the World Health Organization (WHO). Across the globe, companies demonstrate their support for their employees’ mental wellbeing by offering in-house wellness activities such as yoga or meditation, and in some cases, by launching month-long campaigns in the name of mental health education and awareness. This year, the theme is “Make Mental Health for all a Global Priority.” In 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic the WHO estimated one in eight people globally were living with a mental disorder. In the aftermath of the pandemic, that number could be staggeringly larger. And while yoga, breath, mindfulness and other wellness practices become more widely accepted as tools for accessing mental health and wellbeing, they have also become Band-Aid solutions that help us ignore a more complex problem, the role that our cultural values and societal conditioning play in the current mental health crisis.
While I can appreciate the effort, the truth is that a singular yoga class as part of an office team retreat or team-building activity is limited in its ability to impact mental wellbeing. At best, it’s a free class for those who already enjoy yoga or perhaps an introduction to those who have never practiced before. So too are the short-lived campaigns to “check in on a fellow colleague” or the odd sound bath or gratitude circle. The fact is, mental health requires a consistent and dedicated effort. Even yoga teachers and wellness professionals who live and breathe in this space can fall through the cracks sometimes.
Chronic stress is a leading cause of disease
Stress contributes enormously to mental health disorder. Even if we consistently engage in the practices geared towards stress management and nervous system regulation such as breathing techniques, meditation and ice baths, it may not be enough. While the natural physiology of our bodies to mount a response to an external or internal stressor is vital to our survival, we must acknowledge the difference in the roles and outcomes of acuteversus chronic stress. Acute stress in our modern world can take shape as a looming deadline or a disagreement in the boardroom or with a friend over decision-making. Chronic stress may look or feel like what many of us experienced during the height of the pandemic, such as uncertainty, loneliness and the loss of control. Whether the stress is acute or chronic, physical or emotional, the body mounts the same response. To simplify, the end result is an artillery of chemical and hormonal secretions within the body that attempt to bring it back into homeostasis. “The same stress response, triggered chronically and without resolution, produces harm and permanent damage. Chronically high cortisol levels destroy tissue” (Mate, Gabor, When the Body Says No, 2003). The point is that even if we have the nervous system and stress management tools, long-term and chronic exposure to stress is a leading cause of illness, often in the form of auto-immune disease or cancer, and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Stress can be invisible even to the person under stress!
Identifying chronic stress may not be as easy as it seems however. The stress response is a set of physiological events that involve the brain, the immune, nervous and endocrine systems, and various organs of our body. By this definition, stress can occur in the body even when we are not aware of it. Studies have shown that stress can be produced in unconscious patients under anesthesia. Stress responses have also been observed in people who are unaware of their emotions or who have mastered the repression of their emotions. In such cases where the person is disconnected from the subtle body responses, stress may go unnoticed.
How does this play out in our day to day lives? Our workplace culture, the dynamics of our personal relationships, our childhood environment all play a role in conditioning us not to notice chronic stress. For example, in companies where the accepted culture is to work 80 hours a week, adrenaline combined with exhaustion from lack of sleep become normalized so much so that the employees who choose to endure such expectations become unaware of the subtle and continuous stress that it places on the body. A person who remains in a toxic relationship for one reason or another may also become conditioned to their emotions to the point where they may not be aware of the internal stress that it creates. Hans Seyle, a medical researcher who is often known as the “father of stress research” observed that people conditioned to high levels of stress in childhood may become addicted to their own stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in unexplained behavior in adulthood that consistently leads to stressful situations.
Mental Health in the Workplace
What does this mean for organizations that are genuinely interested in improving mental health in the workplace? It means taking a real and honest look at inter-personal relationships and power dynamics, and the underlying work culture. It means creating an environment where everyone feels safe to speak. It means training executives, managers and staff in productive and non-violent communication. It means identifying employee interests and strengths, and giving them a sense of purpose and empowerment. It means valuing their time, offering fair wages and acknowledging their work. It means upholding work-life balance and identifying areas of toxicity within the structure of the organization in order to correct it. Finally, it also means offering comprehensive mental health and wellness education.
Sound bowls and ice baths are not enough, self-inquiry is essential
On a personal level, we have a big part to play in our own mental health journey, and it’s not an easy or pretty path. Beyond breathing, movement practices, sound baths, ice baths and all the nervous-system training we can do, there is a deep need for self-realization and self-love. For being able to see and acknowledge our shadows and our light. To understand why we seek to please others. To know how our personal upbringing has conditioned us into certain patterns of behavior and thinking. To identify repressed emotions and to release them. To listen to our inner voice and to express it freely. To say “no” when it’s not right for us without guilt. To move on from what no longer serves us. To be an empowered and unique individual without the fear of rejection and abandonment. These are the real gems of mental health.
Breaking from our conditioned selves
I speak here from personal experience, and from a period of intense study and reflection since the onset of a rare auto-immune disease known as Henoch-Schonlein Purpura (HSP) about four months ago. I have been a yoga practitioner for twenty years, and a yoga teacher for ten of those. I have an entire toolkit of nervous system and stress management practices. I live and breathe within the space of mental wellbeing and spirituality. I have taught philosophy, mindfulness, self-love, and empowered practices for almost a decade. As I said earlier, even yoga teachers can fall through the cracks. What I’ve realized is that our patterns of behavior and thinking can be so heavily conditioned that while they may seem benign in the best of times, so much so that we may even think we have transcended them, in the worst of times, they re-emerge unnoticed until one day, the body reveals its truth. It is not a failure to fall in this way. It is the ultimate validation of the mind-body-spirit connection. In scientific terms, it is the natural interplay between our mind, our brain, our nervous system, our immune system, our endocrine system and the organs of our body.
If we are to speak honestly about mental health, we cannot ignore the role that our modern society plays in this conditioning. We live in a culture of instant gratification, of homogenization, of being busy, of the pursuit of more. Our perception of what we need to survive on both a social and material level have been so skewed, the bar pushed so far off course, that many of us are driven to anxiety from chasing an artificial target. We are also conditioned by our families and our early childhood experiences. Our conditioned sense of self, confidence, sense of security and how we value ourselves may leave us vulnerable to the larger societal conditioning as we mature through adulthood. To truly prioritize mental health, we need to go through the process of de-conditioning individually, and together as a society, as humankind. The question is whether we are willing to do this. Are we willing to do what it takes to make mental health for all something within reach?