Avy Oberoi: Caring For The Mental Health Of Yourself, Children, And The Elderly Amidst The Farmers' Protest

At a time when individuals are experiencing deep stress, sadness, anger, fear, trauma; what can the readers do to care for their bodies, and their loved ones’, while being a social activist?

Avy Oberoi
March 21, 2021 | 4.5 min read

The farming community in India has entered the eighth month of their protest against the new farm acts, created and blatantly imposed by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

The hundreds of thousands of farmers protesting on the ground are receiving unprecedented support from millions outside India.

While these remote supporters are playing an active part by marching in their respective cities to create awareness and raise funds for the cause, it irresponsible to forget the importance of emotional wellbeing for humans to thrive. After such a drawn-out fracas, which is still ongoing, there is a growing need to address the mental health of these supporters distributed across the globe. 

Protests in India have been heavily dominated by participants from one particular state, Punjab. Through this article, I would like to address a facet of this crucial time in the history of Punjab and Punjabis worldwide – empowering ourselves to march ahead ‘mentally well’.

At a time when individuals are experiencing deep stress, sadness, anger, fear, trauma; what can the readers do to care for their bodies, and their loved ones’, while being a social activist?

Here I provide research-based information on brain physiology under traumatic stress and how awareness of our mental health issues can lead to healthier minds and bodies.

Caring for the Self 

For our bodies to work as healthy protestors, activists, supporters, and allies, we need to understand our neurobiology. While we strive to stay fully and painfully updated on the protests, it is important to recognize how our continuous scrolling through the news articles and photos on social media, results in mental exhaustion, dysfunction, and trauma. 

It is extremely necessary to answer the calls of survival our body lets out in such scenarios. Traumatic stress, as described by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in his New York bestseller book, The Body Keeps the Score, can make us feel chronically unsafe inside our own bodies and leave us overwhelmed with visceral warning signs like sickening pain, nausea, and vomiting. 

Paying close attention to our emotional health and recognizing the deeper effects of emotional abuse will empower us to keep moving along in the Farmers’ Protest, physically or virtually. An easy and intuitive way to do so is to surround our social space with fellow supporters and allies in the matter and creating a safer community by identifying misinformation and rumours. While social distancing measures are in place, trying to connect with community and faith-based organizations online, through social media, or by phone or mail is highly recommended.

Additionally, it is advised to take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It is good to be informed, but hearing about the protests and the developments constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from phone, tv, and computer screens for a while.

Caring for the Young 

Neuroimaging has consistently shown that the human brain and behaviour continue to evolve well into the twenties. Home to key mind tasks such as mental planning, working memory, and impulse control, our prefrontal cortex is among the last areas of the brain where neurons continue to grow. Children and teens, not capable of understanding a situation may still be receiving audible cues from family and friends, and lack the maturity to handle such a complicated social issue.

Children form mental narratives that are much more traumatizing for them than adults. 

Age-appropriate communication plays a very positive role in such situations, for example, saying “We need to protect and help those who grow our food” OR “Farmers are being forced to work a certain way, they aren’t happy and we understand and support them” can put things in the right perspective for them. Children do not and should not be expected to understand the nuanced viewpoints related to electoral politics or autocratic reaches of the government.

Acknowledging the feelings of our young is one of the most effective ways of helping them in such peculiar times. When we acknowledge those feelings, we validate them. This includes those feelings we often think of as “negative,” such as anger, frustration and disappointment. This sensitizes our children to such feelings and helps them deal with the situation in a constructive way. 

Caring for the Elderly

While there is no doubt that Punjabi resilience has prevailed amid several crises in the past, this resilience comes with a heavy emotional price, the effects of which are clearly evident in the most concerning social and behavioral issues amongst Punjabis of today.

For example, Punjabis who were young adults during the 1984 tragedy, may experience retraumatizing ‘flashbacks’ during the current testing events, which is one of the hallmark symptoms of a severe life-debilitating psychological condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  (PTSD). 

To reactivate the brain's natural neuroplasticity, we must acknowledge and validate the pain, and seek proper professional psychological care for our older adults. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify its connections or rewire itself. Without this ability, a brain would be unable to develop as we age, would not be able to learn any new skills, or recover from any minor or serious brain injury.

Additionally, addressing the basic needs of proper nutrition is imperative. The leading cause of a myriad of chronic illnesses in the vulnerable elderly population is inflammation which in turn is caused by chronic stress, lack of sleep, and intake of highly processed food. Ensuring that the older adults get sufficient rest and encouraging healthy eating habits amongst them can help maintain internal balance and empower them to continue fulfilling their social roles.

The inter-generational suffering and trauma experienced by Punjabis beyond resolution, several times over in history, makes us gritty: a powerful blend of passion and perseverance. However, we cannot ignore that it also makes us deeply vulnerable. If we do not address mental health in the context of the Farmers’ Protests, then we will not be doing justice to our past battles and victories or to the future of over 250 million lives that hinges on the largest protest in human history. 

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Avy Oberoi is a university lecturer, teaching courses on the human body, its physiology, and wellness. She has a PhD in Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology from the Simon Fraser University, Canada, and a Bachelors in Physiotherapy from Punjabi University, India. She spends the rest of her time being a mental health advocate and a science communicator. You can find her on Twitter at @AvyOberoi.


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