“I think you really need to take a break,” is something I have heard in life more than the standard how-are-yous. I understand it comes from people’s best intentions. After working through the day, day after day, everyone needs a break. For me though, just the idea of a time-off feels like I’m committing a crime. A mere act of requesting for leave and indulging in the art of doing nothing comes packed with so much guilt that I’d rather just go on working.
Such is the premise on which high-functioning anxiety presents itself through me—it makes the thought of resting induce an unfathomable guilt which refuses to go away.
I am a 26-year-old mental health professional and activist. My days go by creating awareness, researching, writing, consulting, assisting, teaching and preparing, all in a constant state of vigilance and hyperarousal. But even after reaching peak exhaustion, my nights remain sleepless and fidgety as I swim in the guilt from believing that I’ve not worked enough during the day.
The lockdown hit me even harder. I have a habit of forgetting weekends since I am always finding work for myself even on Saturdays and Sundays, and being at home during the pandemic facilitated this forgetfulness. The only way for me to deal with anxiety about working is to work more, using the distress itself as a defence against its turmoil. Where does this come from?
High-functioning anxiety, although experienced internally, is really a product of the acquired stigma against resting coupled with oppressive narratives about productivity. It is not that I can't take a break. It’s just that I struggle to understand what this break means to me, for every thought of taking one triggers thoughts such as, “But what have you even done to deserve it?”
Resting for me is no more the natural act that was instilled by the miracles of human evolution; it is a danger zone which feels persecutory. I often shut my laptop and lie down with random thoughts wrestling against each other to come to conclusions which might have no consequence in real life. It’s like a courtroom drama and the verdict is: You’re guilty because you’re not enough.
This brings us to the crucial idea that mental health is sometimes not an internally confined entity but a sociopolitical problem that lies outside the individual within our environmental norms which includes the way we perceive work and working. These norms can transform toxic busyness into “key strengths” that shine on résumés and can be owned with pride. Since our individuality is defined by the labour we can produce and not by the values, ambitions and principles we hold about our lives, we have accepted the notion that the busier we keep, the happier we can expect ourselves to be. It makes the problem of anxiety or any other form of distress experienced in the realm of work as one’s own fault and eventually our own responsibility to fix.
We, as people, can best be understood as meaning-making individuals who are constantly involved in authoring and re-authoring our biographies. But the stories we tell often contain narratives about ourselves internalised from our sociocultural and socioeconomic environment. When we internalise the capitalist narrative which portrays people who rest as unworthy of peace and content, it is a lens we make our own for both, to look at the world, and to look at ourselves in it. So, when I am told to take a break, it brings out hostility for not just the person who means well but also for myself for having to listen to it.
I still carry the privilege of the ability to articulate this anxiety and its roots—how internalising the capitalist narrative affects my own self-concept. I, however, cannot imagine its plight on groups that lie on the margins. Research has been exploring the links between mental distress and lower socio-economic status and other oppressed sections for a long time now, going as far as finding its role in causing intergenerational trauma.
About half the working population in India struggles with some form of distress, the fault of which is attributed to their own incapacities. Burnout, a condition marked by persistent emotional exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy, is associated with toxic work cultures has been on a rise in India, and most of the world at large. All because serving capitalism is deemed more important than putting our wellbeing on priority. But what else are we to chase if not work? The system keeps us in the race for our lives that we are forced to believe only ends in job securities and pay grades.
I’ve wondered what we can do about it. Breaking such internalisations is often an interdisciplinary goal but the fight may begin from oneself. Psychotherapist Byran Robinson suggests acquiring the ability to distinguish between being “driven” by the hustle culture and being “drawn” from intrinsic values. This can be done by using personalised stems to our decisions such as “I can” or “I choose to”.
However, on a larger level do we rest to resist? Do we raise concerns over mental health in the workplace not as a matter of subscriptions to meditation apps but as a matter of systemic changes that don’t measure the individual’s worth based on how much and often they can produce for the giants? Both seem doable but both require solidarity and a collective push. I should be able to rest not simply for working more but for myself. Anxiety is not solely isolated into one’s pathology; at times the pathology lies in the system in which one struggles to survive.
Follow Prateek on Twitter.