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When air pollution damages your body and your mind

Air pollution has been linked to anxiety and depression but there are ways to counter its effects while staying safe

Delhi’s inhabitants are choking and struggling to breathe as a toxic smog engulfs the capital (iStockPhoto)

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Aditi Khurana, a Delhi-based media executive, sounds agonised when she talks about the quality of air in her city. “My health has been declining steadily, and my voice has become hoarse; I feel weak, tired and anxious all the time,” says Khurana, adding that her parents, too, are facing a similar situation.

It is that time of the year when Delhi’s inhabitants choke and struggle to breathe as a toxic smog engulfs the capital, courtesy of stubble burning. While admittedly, Delhi’s air quality index has never been great, it soars during winter, putting its citizens at risk of respiratory and cardiac infections, lung cancer, asthma and, over time, premature mortality. Already, people across age groups are complaining of constant headaches and coughs, and offices are letting their employees work from home in an attempt to reduce their exposure to pollution.

Also read: How art helps us talk about air pollution

There is another aspect of air pollution that isn’t talked about enough: its impact on mental health. Air pollution is shown to reduce general levels of happiness among people and their satisfaction with routine living. There is even evidence that air pollution is associated with increased mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. In 2020, a study by MIT professor Jackson G Lu showed strong evidence of mental health problems due to air pollution. The study also showed that with air pollution, the mental health presentation to hospitals increases for depression on high pollution days. Additionally, being exposed to prolonged pollution creates panic among people that their overall health is worsening.

The panic is justified, of course. As Dr Garima Rajan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at FLAME University, Delhi, points out, air pollution can lead to an array of health conditions. Additionally, it comes in the way of people living normal lives.

“Air pollution crisis is severely impacting the normal activities of both children and adults and leads to disruption in their social aspects of life as well. All of these declines in physical, emotional, and social aspects of life lead people to experience low life satisfaction and poor well-being,” she says.

Kapil Gupta, the founder of Solh Wellness, a mental health marketplace based in Delhi, confirms that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that air pollution impacts the general mood and well-being of people. “It impacts the level of thinking, concentration, attention, memory, intelligence, and overall performance. Being depressed and anxious, people display symptoms of irritability, lack of interest, tiredness, fatigue and reduced productivity in routine activities,” he says.

Additionally, some studies indicate that people who live in highly polluted regions during the first ten years of life are at a greater risk of developing schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, and personality disorders, points out Dr Kersi Chavda, a consultant psychiatrist at PD Hinduja Hospital & MRC, Mumbai.

“Some studies have found that short-term exposure of PM2.5 was linked to exacerbations in the children’s psychiatric disorders in one to two days following the exposure,” he says, adding that children who reside in disadvantaged areas were considered to be at greater risk of being susceptible to the effects of air pollution compared to children residing in well-off neighbourhoods. This was particularly relevant to anxiety disorders and suicide, he added.

While not everyone has the luxury of moving out of a polluted city, how does one protect themselves as much as possible while living through this crisis? Here are some tips

Also read: How air pollution hinders children's health

Limit news consumption

Be mindful of your news consumption, and don’t read about the negative impacts of air pollution all the time. You already know that it is a problem that needs to be dealt with urgently, but constantly reading negative news can lead to feeling anxious or even depressed as you cannot do much about it.

Wear masks

Try and have more indoor plants and use masks when you go out. It may sound very simple, but this is to bring about a shift in your mindset where you can shift the locus of control internally and feel in charge of the situation. Basically, the greater the locus of control, the better you feel.

Engage in self-care

Engage in any form of self-care when you are feeling stressed. If you cannot go out for a run, exercise indoors. Be flexible and allow yourself to rejuvenate at your home itself.

Prevent exposure

The major part is to prevent exposure to the air pollution environment for extended periods. This would prevent the body’s response to increased oxidative stress and inflammation.

Exercise regularly

Have a robust exercise routine with a mix of aerobics, yoga and meditation to calm the body and mind. Also, exercise does help boost your body’s immunity.

Mindfulness

Engage in mindfulness practices like spending time on your hobbies to bring general peace to mind.

Get rest

Take enough rest and sleep to let the body recover and help with having enough energy levels for the next day.

Check-in regularly

Stay connected with friends and family and seek professional help if you find changes in your behaviour pattern.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist

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