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Verve People
January 17, 2020

An Inside Job

Text by Supriya Thanawala. Photographed by Rema Chaudhary. Styled by Ojas Kolvankar

Anxiety and stress at the workplace can be crippling, particularly in today’s high-pressure corporate culture. And the stigma around men opening up about mental illness is shaped by its own set of patriarchal diktats. Entrepreneur Nikhil Taneja leads Verve through his uphill climb to personal and occupational success and proves that showing vulnerability is the first step towards taking control

He was at the helm of his career in the film and television industry a few years ago when he had his first panic attack. Like most people who suffer from anxiety, Nikhil Taneja, who was then 30, did not understand the symptoms he was facing. “I’d sweat a lot, my heart would pound and race all the time. I’d have trouble breathing too. I thought it was something to do with my heart, but when I went to the doctor, I got diagnosed with anxiety,” he wrote once on social media — where over the last two years, he has become increasingly vocal about his struggles with mental health — and later in the press, where he has also opened up. Today, the 33-year old Taneja is in a better place and has successfully co-founded Yuvaa, a company that creates award-winning video content on mental health — for the 15-35 demographic — that very often goes viral. But the story of his journey to recovery is one he won’t easily forget.

Commonly described as a natural and healthy bodily reaction to stress or fear, anxiety can grip both men and women alike when things get overwhelming. Yet, psychologists today are increasingly finding that there are more men than women who are seeking therapy for anxiety.

“The reasons for this are plenty,” says Dr Deepali Bedi, a Delhi-based psychotherapist who works with a much larger number of male, as compared to female, clients. “Socially, there is still a lot of pressure on men to be the breadwinners of the family. Women may be ‘forgiven’ for being out of a job or a salaried position every now and then but men usually aren’t. So, this type of anxiety is actually more acute among men,” she says. Yet, as Dr Bedi also admits, it may manifest through a variety of psychological symptoms in women as well, particularly given the masculinised pressures they, too, now face while trying to fit into a corporate culture rooted within the patriarchal framework of a ‘man’s world’.

Being expected to continuously shoulder such a responsibility may go on to trigger anxiety and stress through what American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon first termed as a ‘fight or flight response’ in the body, leading a susceptible person to react to situations at work through either aggressive and panic-driven workaholism on one extreme — or complete withdrawal, non-performance and unemployment on the other. A recent report in a well-known international men’s magazine further showed how stress was also a key factor in men having heart attacks at a young age. Carrying with it a heightened risk of cardiovascular problems, the burden of socialised masculinity is now gaining ground as a problem in urgent need of being addressed.

“There is an unwritten rule that men must always portray themselves as ‘strong’ and shouldn’t need to seek help. This can make it hard for them to talk about their problems and choose professional treatment,” reflects Taneja, who found that opening up about his therapy led him to find love, empathy and support from strangers and friends alike — and that the stigma he had earlier been afraid of could actually be bypassed or transgressed. “I realised through my own therapy that it was an ambition for success that was at the heart of my mental health issues,” says Taneja, further adding how he now believes that the entire concept of success and failure is, in itself, debatable.

His first and most severe panic attack, on the morning that he was about to attend the very first “Goalkeepers” event — an international forum in New York that annually brings change-makers together from across the world (where he is now on the Global Advisory Board) — was when he initially began to come to terms with the anxiety he felt. “I was invited to this celebrated event that was organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the US, and I knew that I would be amid some of the most brilliant and successful people in the world. At that moment, I crumbled; anxiety made me overthink and led me to believe that I’d be exposed in front of everyone for being fake,” he says.

Taneja practised some of the techniques he had already learned from his therapist and tried to calm himself down in his hotel room. This fear of being seen as an imposter was what he was about to tackle in the times to come (a syndrome that Pauline Rose Clance and Joe Langford explain in detail in their article “The Imposter Phenomenon” published by Psychotherapy journal in 1993). “However, when I finally did meet some of the participants, I was taken over by an epiphany. What I realised was that here were people who were not just chasing success, but people who were actually advocating for and fighting for social change, and that was what created a shift in me, in the way I saw myself,” he reveals.

This need for and significance of action — or doing —eventually spearheaded the idea that led to the birth of Yuvaa, which he co-founded along with his friends Amritpal Bindra and Anand Tiwari in 2018. But it was the search for a larger purpose that made Taneja come to terms with his existential and moral crisis while he was working on a number of successful web series programmes for Yash Raj Films (YRF) in Mumbai. “I just realised that money held no meaning in itself for me, and that while I was being paid really well, it meant nothing if I wasn’t performing and delivering. When one of the films I worked on and gave my heart to did not match up to ideal standards and failed critically, my entire pursuit for success began to feel meaningless,” he adds.

What has stayed with Taneja over the years and gives him strength during times of confusion and stress, is his seven-year-long experience of teaching journalism at a mass media college; it helped him recognise that he is able to truly feel proud of himself when doing something purposeful. “In our society, there’s too much pressure for men to focus only on earning a lot of money, and it is considered a norm for men to work only for that and nothing else,” he adds. “Ever since I was young, I was creative, and I was a writer since the age of 14, but I took up engineering in college because it was considered taboo for men to choose anything else,” Taneja says of his past choices. At his college, where he also met his wife, he wrote prolifically for the in-house magazine and later went on to report on entertainment as a journalist in the media, interviewing almost everyone in the Indian film industry. “Engineering had, therefore, been a strange choice for me, but it was impossible to conceive of studying anything else back in college.”

The insights into the cause of his anxiety, through the light of the behavioural psychotherapy he underwent, led Taneja to quit his job at YRF and briefly follow his own path. “My therapist was initially surprised at my decision. But while I loved the job and did not want to leave, I felt I needed to heal and recover fully,” he recalls. “I turned down fantastic and lucrative offers from other places and decided that I did not want to work on something until I truly felt convinced about it. What the failure of that one film at YRF taught me was that in every corporate job, one also has to do a lot of things they are not interested in.” Having had the time to process his feelings, he adds, “At the end of the day, all work comes down to basically doing jugaad, or production. It’s about how you are able to piece things together in order to put together a final product. And that may be true of what one learns as an engineer too, whether you call it a science or not.”

Taneja says that his panic attacks have now ceased, and he has found some inner calm after Yuvaa was set up — indicating how such a holistic approach to work can be a long-term solution to managing anxiety. Balancing a variety of relative factors — whether juggling multiple tasks, or dealing with other people and what they want — is essential to being in control at the workplace. “While anxiety related to work is escalating in today’s job scenario, it’s not only specific to professional issues, but to a whole range of them,” says Dr Bedi.

Towards the end of the 20th century, psychoanalysts, like the late Stephen A. Mitchell, explored how the individual mind doesn’t exist in isolation in the way that earlier psychologists thought it did. For instance, the anxious reaction created in people by the dissatisfaction of pursuing self-serving goals could potentially be mitigated if those goals were to be placed into a broader social context — and by making their work, their aspirations and their outcomes relevant and in sync with others around them. Many progressive work cultures today view having a wide range of relationships as central to the psyche and the psyche as a dynamic and central part of one’s social relationships. “When I first started talking about my ideas with Amrit, he was the one who inspired and finally convinced me to set up an independent company with him and Anand, which is now Yuvaa,” recounts Taneja, noting how it would never have been possible for him to do so all on his own. Along with building a synergistic network, he is also mindful of inclusivity. “We have actively worked at addressing the need for gender equality through some of the content we have produced, as well as by ensuring that 50 per cent of our team comprises women,” explains the young professional.

Now, with this successful collaboration, Taneja is convinced that he would like to continue working with people who are his friends and be friends with those who he works with. “Personally, the most important thing today is to work on meaningful pursuits, form the right relationships and associations towards societal change for the youth, to actively choose to let go of toxic people and work cultures, and to work only with the people who I love,” he says. “That is what will remain a permanent goal for me.”

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