With the COVID-19 crisis, stress levels are at an all-time high. Having an expectation of a stress-free life can be the biggest cause of stress.

  • COVID-19 crisis is a very trying time for all of us. It’s harder on some people. For them, working from home, lack of socialisation, etc. has led to experiencing strong emotions like loneliness, anger, anxiety, frustration, and depression - in their personal and professional lives.
  • There are various complicated theories and literature around what it is, what it isn’t, and how to manage it. We thought it would be nice to get some robust and practical “bull’s eye” advice from a veteran in the Corporate & Finance world.
  • The CA Story caught up for an interview with Pankaj Vasani, a Chartered Accountant who has donned various hats – Group CFO, Finance Head, CEO, Tax/Legal/Compliance Head and member of Board of Directors, for an exclusive and freewheeling chat on this topic.

Many people are starting to feel on the edge as stress has aggravated. Your opening remarks.

PV: I would like to start with a disclaimer (smiles). I do not have a formal education and qualification on this subject. And therefore, I speak purely based on my personal experiences and observations.

A lot of balancing is going on to adjust to this new, big and sudden change by everyone across the world. Not everyone reacts the same way. One may be ruined, other may not mind so much. And then there are few who would rejoice the positives emerging out of this situation.

Fear, anxiety and stress are a natural emotional response of our minds to a perceived threat or/and enigma. And the degree may depend on  various factors – community we live in, family and social support, physical wellbeing, financial stability, emotional background, etc. Unfortunately, our minds have been hardwired to believe that stress is a dirty word. It’s not.

Please continue.

PV: Being optimally stress is actually good, healthy, and normal... provided the dwelling is limited to an earmarked ‘worry-period’ – of say 20 or 30 minutes every day - which should diminish over a period of time.

Problem starts when the emotions becomes obstreperous and immoderate i.e. we get ‘too absorbed’ by difficult thoughts and angry feelings which are difficult to ‘shake-off’, it is not in our best interest or for the people around us. This requires a deep dive and also may call for seeking help of a specialist e-healthcare provider.

While I agree that it is no easier to identify endings with certainty than beginnings, I am hopeful that the health catastrophe will wane soon. A return to (some form of) normalcy, including re-establishment of the enfeebled society (and economy), is imminent.

What do you think are the best ways to deal with the C-19 stress?

PV: Neither there is a single magical answer nor there’s one size fits all formula. Also, it is prejudiced to over-generalise. Having an expectation of a stress-free life can be the biggest cause of stress. Emotional wellness depends a lot on your motivation, knowledge and access to good quality information.

My suggested steps along the way:-

Reason it out: Stress only exists in engrossed and over-embellished minds. I have a 4-steps philosophy: a) accept what’s going around – suppressing emotions is not healthy; b) be aware of the signs of stress; c) confront the cause by making a physical flow chart of how you can/should resolve it. Only you can do it. It’s about making the exponential complex, simple; & d) Own it.

Don’t host a pity-party: this is not the end of world. Take it easy. Avoid paranoia. As Helen Keller said, keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

Limit your information consumption: our mind is an association machine. It is easy to be influenced by information overload and negative stereotypes – in the press, social media, poking around the internet, etc. If you need to know, follow only the credible/official sources of information. Muting your notifications and timelines may work wonders.

Focus on your ‘inner circle’: like close friends, family members, and colleagues – as opposed to acquaintances. Stay connected through virtual meet-ups, frequent video/voice calls, online games etc. Be aware, you don’t find happy moments – you make them.

Keep yourself entertained: today, if there’s one thing we can’t whine about, it is a deficiency of variety. Make the best use of various available options – OTT, TV etc. But don’t over indulge. Monotony and idleness is a rust to mind. You can plan many other activities.

Find ways to express yourself: best time to discover your passions and hidden talents – it could be anything - gardening, cooking, painting, singing, dancing, poetry, etc. etc.

Working from home: it’s important to have a structure, boundaries and routine. Without a schedule, life may get very blurry. Take breaks. Demonstrate patience (cut some slack) with your kids, partner and other family members. Try to get some space for yourself. It’s pertinent not to compromise on the ‘me’ time.

Physical wellbeing: every day for at least 45 minutes, shut off all of the external gadgets, get up & do some exercise, yoga and meditation. Don’t ignore personal grooming and hygiene. Sleep well. Eat well.

Seek professional help: if despite all the above, stress continues to impact activities of your daily life for several days or weeks, talk to a professional.

During the lockdown, were there any frustrating or low moments for you?

PV: Not really.

I feel a lack of anything or inability per se is not a negative thing...in fact, it’s positive! It is an opportunity to analyse, comprehend, gain, or learn. Also, if you’re reasonably happy and content from within, you treat highs and lows of life with the same lenses.

What do you do for mental fitness? What’s your manifesto?

PV: Our brain’s computational resources are limited.

Quietness can be incredibly insightful. I try to practice nothing-ness (not even thinking) for at least five whole minutes daily. I believe everyone deserves this break. I don’t use incense or sit in a particular position while practising silence. Can do it in my work chair or even whilst cooking.

My manifesto is not to spend time on social networking websites and news channels/watch TV, and to a large extent, I don’t crave external validation.

It may hit a raw nerve with a lot of people, but - connections are not friends...legions of admirers, followers, or likes don’t count in the real world!

Don’t fall for the ‘happiness facade’....not everyone is having a better time than you.

What is physical fitness for you? Tell us about your habits.

PV: Fitness to me is not just aesthetics - 'it’s about feeling good'. It’s an everyday thing. It is not only the end result but the process which I cherish.

It is my philosophy to wake up every morning at 4:30 am (barring a very few days). I always try to get at least 6-6.5 hours of sleep. I never look at my handheld before 6 am.

My exercise routine is running/walking, calisthenics/bodyweight training, tennis, badminton, yoga and swimming. I love cycling, whenever and wherever I can.

I don’t count my calories and rarely eat packaged food or white sugar. I try to eat clean - lots of fruits and vegetables, chicken/fish/eggs, etc. for proteins. But food cannot be based on fads - I don’t have an unhealthy obsession for dairy-free, gluten-free, grain-free, vegan food etc.

Your 10 intonations for happiness

PV: Not necessarily in the order of appearance:

  1. A satisfied life is better than a successful life.
  2. Self-care is self-preservation. The answers always rest within us.
  3. Smile & laugh often. You can start a wave of human kindness.
  4. Talk to people you love. It could be your zen.
  5. It’s important not to be fatalistic and believe that what can, will ‘not’ go wrong.
  6. Fall for the seduction of music. Listening or humming or crooning your heart out to some karaoke is like food for the spirit.
  7. Treat yourself to the spa or a DIY massage, often.
  8. Mess creates stress. Try to be a minimalist.
  9. Unless we are a hermit, our relationships revolve around other people. Treat people the way you expect to be treated.
  10. If you’re not ecstatic in yourself, you can’t keep anyone around happy.

Pankaj Vasani is a business leader and finance expert with over two decades of experience in senior executive roles and as a board & audit committee member. Over the years, he has donned various hats – Group CFO, Finance Head, CEO, Tax/Legal/Compliance Head and member of Board of Directors. He has held leadership roles with Vodafone, Publicis, Coca-Cola Cola, & Subros.

By education, he’s a Chartered Accountant (England & Wales), Certified Public Accountant (Australia), Chartered Accountant (India) & Lawyer (Delhi Univ., India).

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