For Tejas M, 22-year-old B. tech graduate, staying up past midnight and binge eating, waking up at noon and having lunch has become a routine. While this lifestyle may resonate with many such youngsters, it can take a toll on one’s mental health. “I always thought that I had time to change, and I deserved to enjoy this phase. I was happy until it cost me a good job opportunity,” he recalls. Tejas missed the interview as he could not wake up in time to attend the interview. This made him depressed and demotivated. “It was a hard pill to swallow, but a much-needed one,” he confesses.
A similar story continues for Dr Mohammadi Afrah, a resident doctor at Oxford Medical College, Bengaluru, who gives us a peek into the busy life of a medical student, “In 2020 I had a sleep cycle of 3-5 hours daily for weeks, I would live on coffee and tea during those times. After a point of time, I started feeling depressed and felt like there was too much going on and I could not focus.” But being a medicine student and knowing the unhealthy implications of her routine, she was quick to modify it. Mental and physical health are interconnected. Hence, it becomes crucial to understand the implications of certain habits in one’s routine that can take a toll on one’s mental health.
Why are youngsters getting into unhealthy habits
“Binge eating has always been my biggest blunder,” says Ayra Kamal, a 25-year-old software engineer. It is quite habitual to associate food with emotions. The same was true for Kamal. “I dealt with most of my problems by eating food.” As expected, she gained 12 kgs over four years and a doctor’s visit was her wakeup call. It took two additional years to acknowledge the problems behind her ungoverned eating habits and the importance of healthy eating and portion control.
This leads to a question, why are youngsters susceptible to developing unhealthy habits and why is it so difficult to break them? “Any change in life can be unsettling to us at least in the beginning. Youngsters between the ages of 13 and 25 go through many changes in terms of puberty, emotional maturity and even the physical environment with respect to education, career and so on,” points out Aswin Gosh T R, a psychologist practicing in Bengaluru. To deal with the changes, one turns to comfortable accommodations which can be some everyday habits that nonchalantly turn into a lifestyle. “Lack of self-discipline and direction is another important reason,” continues Gosh. Kerala based self-belief and habit coach, Nishitha Maharoof, says, “every habit that one picks up always has an underlying reason behind it. If one wants to break free from it, they should find out the root cause behind the habit.”
Gosh gives a concise assessment on habits that are not good for mental health:
“Fundamentally two things that affect mental health are nutrition and sleep.” Gosh adds, “going to bed at 3 am and waking up at 7 am and having half a banana as your breakfast is unhealthy.”
A human body is like a machine which works best when there is stability and any change in it can cause a tumbling downhill.
1. We are what we eat and what we do not eat. “Coffee and a caramel and nut bars were my breakfast for two years until I fainted due to low blood sugar level,” says Gauthami Gowda, 23, from Bengaluru. When we skip a meal, our blood sugar level goes down, depriving our brain of oxygen, and in that case, our brain function reduces. There is an increased production of cortisol due to which we feel moody and agitated. Making this a habit can slow down our metabolism.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and the reason for it lies in its name; we break the fast by eating breakfast as it is the first meal after seven to eight hours of sleep,” says Gosh.
2. Pay attention to your circadian rhythm. Digesting food, repairing wounds, and retaining important information are just some of the things that the body does when one sleeps. Therefore, adequate sleep is important for the overall development of the body.
Moreover, it is crucial to sleep on a fixed schedule. Gosh says, “when one doesn’t sleep according to a fixed time, one ends up sending mixed signals to the brain, completely dishevelling the circadian rhythm.” The light emitted from devices such as phones or tablets confuses the brain to stay awake for longer, thus disrupting one’s sleep. “When such a pattern is followed for a long time it could lead to insomnia, stress and anxiety.”
3. Inactive lifestyle and increased screen time: Both habits come hand in hand and can be highly problematic. “Scrolling through Instagram for hours in a day was a norm for me during 2021. With lockdown and the impending fear of COVID-19, I spent my life scrolling away,” says Nidhi Chowdhary, now 22. She further shares how difficult it was to come out of her social media addiction which also led to a sedentary lifestyle. “My bed was my island. Eating junk and watching web series and scrolling through social media was my daily activity.”
Gosh explains the nature of this addiction. Videos that involve pets, memes or humour lightens the mood and makes one laugh which increases the dopamine (the happy hormone) levels in our body. To keep getting the dose of the hormone, one keeps scrolling without keeping track of time.
Variable risk and protective factors matter in the habitual development of youth
Bhavana S, assistant professor and head of the department of psychology in Surana college, Bengaluru, provides a correlation on how risk and protective factors affect the developmental abilities of adolescents that further influence the habits they will develop.
- She says, “Risk factors are traits at the biological, psychological, familial, community, or cultural level that can cause a negative impact on their growth and they can pick up unpleasant habits. On the contrary, protective factors are characteristics that impact in a positive manner.” Some examples of protective factors can be happy memories with family and friends, a disciplined upbringing and so on. The kind of interactions youngsters have with their family, peers and society alter their approach towards life.
Improving one’s quality of life is easier than one thinks…
“It starts at home. One of the most effective ways to overcome those negative habits is by having a successful parent-child relationship,” Bhavana says. Effective parenting techniques show a large, long-lasting, and protective impact on adolescent development. When parents and their children get along well, children are more receptive to parental guidance.
Talk it out. Youngsters often do not understand the outcomes of their actions. Hence, talking about the consequences of bad habits will help in the long run. Talk about the negative effects on one’s physical or mental health when things go wrong.
“Self-awareness is important as it helps individuals to own the responsibility of their actions. Youngsters who calibrate their choices and set goals are always one step ahead at having a successful life,” says Maharoof.
“Having a schedule is vital for your mental health,” Gosh adds. One of the easiest things youngsters can do to rectify their lifestyles is to fix a schedule; it can be as simple as sleeping and waking up at a fixed time, eating at the allotted time, fixing a screen time (could be an hour or two per day), exercising for 15 minutes a day, including a fruit or a vegetable a day and so on.