SURVIVING THE STRESS OF COVID – PART TWO
© Brian Shand 2020
Brian Shand is an analytic psychotherapist, based in Guildford, who works with groups and individuals. Among other things, he has worked in the past as a BBC local radio producer and presenter. Guildfordtherapy.co.uk
In the first of these two blogs, I looked at some of the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. I want to turn my attention now to some practical strategies we can employ to deal with them. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach so different people may find different things useful. I hope there’s something here for you.
The first and main thing is to talk. Talk to someone. You may already have a support group or network or you may not. If you do that’s very good. But if you don’t, it may be worth getting together with a few like-minded people to form one. The therapeutic value of dialogue is beyond price. In a group we find we’re not alone and that what we thought was unique to us is in fact shared by others. The relief can be huge. A group can also be a place where we find guidance and greater self-understanding. We get valuable feedback from others who can sometimes see us and our situation more clearly than we can and we’ll probably also learn from their experiences. We’ll be able to vent and maybe come away with a feeling of hope. (On the subject of hope, by the way, let’s obviously keep our eyes fixed on the vaccines which are now appearing on the horizon. There’s finally light at the end of this long tunnel).
Even if you don’t join a group, just talking to one or two other people can make a difference. The proverbial person who’s always on about their recent operation is doing it for a reason – to process what they’ve been through. So too is the person who’s lost someone. At times of upheaval we need to process.
The next thing to do is to distract yourself. It may sound simplistic and obvious but so what, it works. That is, of course, if you are indeed able to make at least a little time to switch off. I know that may be easier said than done. Now, Winston Churchill made the interesting point that if you want to clear your thoughts and have a real break then doing nothing may not be the best answer because in an empty space our thoughts tend to fix on work. To really relax he advised doing something that will occupy your mind, something really absorbing. You’ll have your own ideas about what that will be for you. It may be reading, it may be listening to or playing music, it may be sport, it may be pottery, it may be basket-weaving, fingerprint collecting or blowtorching but whatever it is you need to enjoy it.
It may even be possible to develop yourself in new areas. Finding refreshment in new passions can be a great way of combatting burnout.
A crucial element in dealing with work pressure is to be aware of what you can do and what you can’t. Over sixteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine composed a shrewd prayer with which you may be familiar: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference’. You can’t necessarily take away a person’s distress, much as you’d like to. Realistic acceptance can be the difference between being permanently frazzled and finding at least some peace.
Teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, this one, but don’t forget to keep firm boundaries around you and to say ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’. To reference Churchill once more, in 1940 he received a request for a meeting from a visiting dignitary. ‘Sir’, Churchill replied, ‘I hope I shall not be thought discourteous if I say that in present circumstances the calls on my time are too pressing for me to have the honour of seeing your Majesty’. Period. His Majesty was King Zog of Albania.
In addition, we need to be aware of what’s being done to us in the pandemic. The previous part of this blog touched on some of those things. But a further, specific, example might be if you’re in the front line working with people who, in turn, are stressed like you. Hospital doctors and nurses are constantly in this situation and sometimes see horrific things. But they’re trained to deal with them. You may or may not be. And if you’re not, it’s good to be aware of what’s going on in your interactions with others. An individual you’re trying to help, for instance, can suddenly switch from being delighted with you to being furious with you. You need to know it’s not personal. Anger at the helping professional is very common.
Your empathy can make that fact difficult for you to process in the heat of the moment. Some people, incidentally, have more empathy than others but, while empathy can make you very good at your job it’s also a two-edged sword because it can make you extra vulnerable.
Deepening psychological understanding
That leads us on to the value of having a sound grasp of human psychology. No bad thing in a crisis like this. Of course, you wouldn’t be successfully doing your job if you didn’t already have a good understanding of people so forgive me if that sounded patronizing. But there’s always more for all of us to learn, even if that can only happen when things return to a greater state of normality, hopefully in the year ahead. But right now there will be all kinds of dynamics going on where you work that could potentially be adding to the stress you’re under.
For example, do you know about transference? That’s when feelings or attitudes towards a major figure from a person’s childhood are transferred (hence the name) onto someone else in the present who’s not that major figure. The person you find difficult at work may be unconsciously treating you as if you were their aggressive father. Just what you need on top of all the other pressures you’ve got. But could it alternatively be you who are experiencing a colleague as if they were your sister with whom you never did see eye to eye?
Or do you know about projection? It’s another unconscious process whereby people defend themselves from unwanted parts of themselves by attributing them to other people. So somebody with a reputation for getting angry all the time suddenly launches into an irate and unreasonable litany of complaints directed at you. You keep calm and make a reasoned reply. They then accuse you of getting angry. Which you weren’t. That’s projection.
Having a basic understanding of a range of processes like these can be enormously valuable in navigating what is already a difficult enough life.
Finally, might it be worth considering a spell of therapy to help you cope with the unprecedented times we’re living through? Or maybe when they’re over. Most people would benefit from a period of therapy because it’s a catalyst for reaching one’s potential as much as for resolving any inner difficulties. And it’s a wonderful arena for the kind of psychological learning I’ve alluded to above.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is often quite long-term and deep work and is concerned with emotional healing and growth in every aspect of ourselves, including the strength to withstand everything life throws at us. It aims for permanent and deep change. As I’ve suggested, it’s not a quick fix but it can be nothing short of transformative.
And finally …
There you have it, then. Some thoughts on dealing with a situation which is so extreme and unusual that aspects of it are often recognized by those who lived through World War II. I hope you find something of what I’ve said helpful. But I’d like to end by thanking you for everything you’re doing for the rest of us. Stay safe and healthy. And keep going if you can. Abraham Lincoln said, ‘When you get to the end of your tether tie a knot in it and hang on’.
We’re nearly there.
UKPHR’s Chief Executive commissioned this blog from Brian Shand, who is a registrant on another Accredited Register. If any reader wishes to seek help through therapy, and has no other contact, David offers to help you to find the right help through his contacts with relevant Accredited Registers.