In today’s social media obsessed, politically unstable world, looking after our mental health has never been more important.
Dr Saliha Afridi, the world-renowned clinical psychologist and founder of Dubai-based mental health and wellness clinic The LightHouse Arabia, joined the Livehealthy podcast to talk about the importance of taking responsibility for our own state of mind, and why we all benefit from some form of therapy.
How can we cope with today’s uncertain world?
Right now we are living in a VUCA world, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We’re experiencing far more than just uncertainty. Uncertainty has always been there. Right from the beginning of time, we have never known what is going to happen tomorrow. But, we had the illusion of certainty. Now we don’t have this certainty anymore and that is what has destabilized us. We also know more about what’s happening in the world than ever before and that is creating a lot of anxiety.
We need to be more disciplined about how we engage with technology and the media, how much of it we consume, and how we establish a sense of safety and soothe our nervous systems.
Some of us feel constantly under threat, hypervigilant, scared and nervous. In this case you should work on establishing some stability inside of yourself, like an inner home that you can go to whenever you need it. But this can only happen if you have a solid relationship with yourself, and if you show discipline.
For instance, I make sure that my own children are engaged in sports that teach them a discipline and resilience. That is my way of preparing them for this VUCA world.
Do we need to change our relationship with social media?
Yes, we can’t put all the blame on social media. We created this stuff and how we use it is on us, not the social media companies. They have their own separate responsibilities.
We all need to play a part in just taking care of each other, and I don’t think that is happening at the moment. Everyone is pointing fingers and blaming each other. No one is saying, ‘What can I do about this? How can I take ownership and not feel like a victim in this story?’
How can we improve our mental health?
This is a question that’s as old as time. A social group always has the ability to influence your personal perspective, and there have always been people who have questioned that. Religions and new territories were founded in this way.
Today our collective has gotten bigger because it’s no longer just our village or family, but a whole world that we can access through technology. The world has become really small in that sense, and outside influences are right there in our face all day. We’re saying things like ‘this person in LA is doing this’, or ‘this person in some other place is doing that’.
We have become so externally focused that we’ve started disconnecting with our inner voice. When I was growing up I didn’t have a cell phone, and when I was in my 20s they weren’t as distracting as they are today. We still had our own personal space and we engaged with our environment more. Every spare moment wasn’t spent on our smart phones.
But today, there is no space for human experience. People are feeling very disconnected from themselves and their own personal values.
So, we need to work out what is interfering with our inner experience and what we can do to cut it out. People are not being intentional and deliberate enough about this.
It won’t happen just by going off on holiday, because when we’re walking on the beach, we’re making Instagram stories about it. You’re never ever alone and you won’t connect with yourself unless you try to.
I think the number one thing is to put your phone on airplane mode regularly. This gives you a sense of control. Don’t just go from meeting to meeting, you need to make space for yourself.
When I say make space, I’m not saying you have spend a whole weekend out in the desert. It could be just three minutes where you look out the window, do a body scan, check in and ask yourself how you are feeling.
I’m constantly touching base with myself. When something big happens, I compartmentalize it but then always go back to it at a time when I can examine in properly.
I engage in therapy twice a week and I’m very intentional about how I process things. Other people use journaling practices for this.
Are we experiencing a mental health crisis?
I have been saying for years that things are getting worse and at some point we will hit rock bottom. But sometimes we need that in order for everyone to wake up and say, ‘Oh, wait, we need to do something about this’.
The global pandemic felt like rock bottom for many companies. It also prompted lots of people to resign from their jobs. In the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, we experienced a mass exodus. The adrenaline got people through COVID, and then they just crashed.
Sadly enough, I actually don’t know what the future is going to look like. My wish is that people start to take ownership and personal responsibility for their wellbeing. That they don’t wait for someone to come and save them. You need to own your mental health and wellbeing because only you can do something about it.
Do partners have a role to play?
It’s not the partner’s job to help someone manage their mental health, but they do play a role in it. Again, we have a duty to each other and we have a responsibility for each other. But to think that someone is going to save you and soothe you every time, that’s too big a burden for any relationship. It’s not sustainable.
The best thing you can do is take ownership of your own wellbeing, and just go to your partner for support.
Are mental health ‘influencers’ making things worse?
Yes, it’s a peeve of mine. Like when people call others a narcissist, when actually less than 2 percent of people have narcissistic personality disorder. People use this term as an insult, but they don’t realize that there are people who have been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder who are working on healing themselves.
A little information can also be so dangerous. Disorders have been reduced to a tile, but how can we speak so simplistically about something that is so complex? That’s why a lot of your psychologists don’t post on social media because their subjects are too complicated to condense in such a way.
So instead we have those who know only a little bit about mental health writing about it on social media. There’s zero depth in what they’re saying, there’s zero ethical responsibility in how they’re saying it, and they’ve zero understanding about how this might actually affect people. They’re not thinking through the context and it’s dangerous.
I would advise people to be sensible about who they follow and listen to. After all, we all know if someone has a degree or not. For those who are putting that information out there I wish they would learn to use their platforms in a responsible way. To perhaps bring on professionals to answer questions rather than putting out information that hasn’t been vetted.
It’s really, really dangerous and messy. Life coaches can be great for problem-solving and working through decisions, but in some cases it can lead to an inflated sense of self and a lack of responsibility.
That’s why I eventually decided to take to Instagram and share my 14 years of psychotherapy experience. I felt like I needed to step up and counteract the voices on social media that were actually quite reckless and irresponsible with people’s wellbeing. Shallow is a good word to describe a lot of what is happening on social media.
Can any good come from hitting rock bottom?
Whenever you are in that dark place and there doesn’t seem to be a way out, just know that you’re supposed to be there. You should see it as an initiation into another way of being.
Sometimes when we grow up and our physical and mental development comes to an end, our psychospiritual development begins. We cannot quantify that in an objective way, but it’s happening.
It’s also important to remember that nothing lasts forever. What goes down must come up. There’s a season and a reason for everything and you will get through it. In those moments, really take care of your body. When the mind goes this way and the heart goes that way, focus on your body, it will carry you through.
Sleep seven to eight hours, eat right, and prioritize movement, sunlight and hydration. Keep those things regulated and you will come out onto the other side and be able to make sense of it when you are stronger. Every life has these dark times. There’s usually one great spiritual crisis that happens around ages 30 to 40. It’s normally the awakening of something.
There will be periods of darkness and there will be periods of light, there will be things that contract, and there will be times where you will expand. It’s part of life. Don’t just get through it, look to get something from it. You can turn pain into compassion, grief into love and suffering into wisdom. That’s the work that I do.
Finally, why should everyone consider going to therapist?
Every great person had a counselor or a coach. We are not meant to do this alone. Even in the old days, the elders held all the wisdom for the village. It just looks different in today’s world.
For the last decade I have being trying to destigmatize mental health treatment.
I have a personal board of advisors, including coaches, Reiki healers, spiritual teachers, and my husband, who’s very wise. I have people that I consult with, but I have a therapist because I know the therapist connects the past, the present, the future, and I need this whole, holistic way of looking at myself.
Life coaches are not meant to go to the past, life coaches move to the future. So have someone that can actually do the past work because if you don’t understand your history, you will continue to repeat that. Even King Arthur had a counselor and a magician and all of these other people on his roundtable. Create your roundtable and put a counselor or a therapist on it.
Dr Saliha Afridi was a guest on the Livehealthy podcast in July 2022. For more information visit lighthousearabia.com.
Harriet Shephard is an Abu Dhabi-based copywriter and freelance journalist with a particular focus on fitness, travel and lifestyle, which, along with good food, also happen to be her main passions when she's not typing away at her laptop.