Kimon Ganev

More and more people live as if they are immortal

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Kimon Ganev is a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. Since the beginning of his practice he is interested in the psychological aspects of medicine - the emotional side of the illnesses and the specific relationship between the doctor and the patient. For more than 25 years he has worked in “Dinamika” - a center for psychotherapy, psychological and psychiatric consultation. He also was teaching in several universities. During the last few years he mainly focuses on clinical work and practical training sessions.

Where were you and how was your everyday work life structured when the COVID 19 crisis stroke?

In the usual daily life - mainly working with patients, team discussions with colleagues and conducting trainings for therapists. At the beginning there was a shock reaction - for two or three weeks the calls in Dinamika decreased sharply. We started working partially online (something we do not recommend at all, if possible to avoid); and at a later stage our weekly team discussions became virtual. And in general - increased anxiety when approaching the other and finding the right distance for the moment.

You talk about anxiety when approaching the other in the work of therapists. And what changes have you witnessed in the psyche of your clients during the last year?

The changes I see are changes that apply to all of us.During the last year we live in an unusual, constant and often subdued emotional tension. It affects all of us, including the therapists that work with other people’s emotions. A lot of things are causing this tension. We are now faced with the unknown, and we do not like the unknown. We try to deny its existence or to create some kind of explanation for it. This calms us down but at a price: denial and hasty pseudo explanations only obscure the reality.

Living in the unknown, we need to make choices much more often: how close should I get, what should or shouldn’t I do, which risks are reasonable and which are too high? We doubt our decisions and limit our activity.

Thinking about how much and how to get closer to the others is exhausting for the psyche.

Yes, for all of us. We are all changing. The relationships with other people, even our closest ones, are now questioned. We perceive the others both as a possible source of support and as a threat. Human relationships are getting thinner. Our connection with the others is an important factor for our sense of security. When human relationships are questioned, our idea about who we are is unstable, our perception about belonging to our family or our friends circle is unstable, our beliefs about what we can count on in the future are unstable.

We also have fewer possibilities to cross check our own experiences with the others, to share and process them. And this is weary. We become lonelier, more vulnerable, more distrustful, and more susceptible to mood swings driven by any change in the circumstances.  

At the same time we have access to an enormous quantity of information, some of which is highly specialized. It seems this should help us understand better what is going on, but it does not. It is actually impossible for us to digest, structure and understand all the data, the different statements, the news and the forecasts. Moreover this data is often conflicting, biased, unreliable and is presented chaotically and in an overly dramatic way. As a result we are not well informed, but rather overwhelmed by this constant noise.

 

What are the other challenges to our psyche?

We should also mention the need to adapt to the new ways to work, cohabitate and stay connected with our friends. A lot of our previous leisure activities were altered or totally disappeared. These massive changes are very challenging for our psyche and our coping mechanisms.

We are in a state of constant semi-mobilisation is draining our emotional and adaptation resources.

The factors listed above generate a constant heavy demand towards our mind to deal with too many new things simultaneously and to be vigilant for any upcoming surprises. It is as if we are at a battlefield all the time. There is no real fight, but we are always alert and ready to react. This state of constant semi-mobilisation is draining our emotional and adaptation resources.

That is why we feel tired, demotivated, easily distracted and emotionally unstable. That is why we are prompt to react with either depression and anxiety or unrealistic optimism and unhealthy underestimation of the situation. These are the symptoms of what we call “pandemic fatigue”. The term refers to a state of emotional exhaustion, caused by our efforts to adapt to the threat of the virus and the imposed restrictions. This fatigue is a signal that we function in an emergency mode. Our defense is weakened and we can crack where we are weakest. If we are prompt to anxiety, we will become more anxious. If low spirits is our thing we will probably become depressed. If we are inclined to substance abuse, we will do more of it. 

It is very important how we react in this situation. Everyone is affected by the pandemic and it is yet to be seen what the long term consequences will be. However, it is already clear that a lot of the aspects of our daily life and our visions for the future are being changed. There will be emotional and psychological consequences and humans will probably never be the same as before.

How is the isolation affecting the families?

During the last year the families spend an unusually big part of their lives together at home. This often leads to more tension and conflicts. However, there are also a lot of families that manage to use the crisis to rediscover each other and to find new and fulfilling ways to be together. 

Yet, it is good to remember that it is risky to put all your eggs in one basket. We function better when we have at least a few different roles in a few different environments, because this widens our horizons and our identity. Otherwise, our ability to react to stimulus, challenges and opportunities is diminished and we are more likely to become prisoners of our own fantasies, wrongly perceiving them as the reality. When we operate in different environments and roles, it is more likely that we question our fantasies and correct them, when they do not correspond to the circumstances. Thus we avoid falling into the traps of our own insecurities and anxieties.

And what happens to children during this crisis?

All our life we need to feel a connection with other human beings. This happens through a look, a touch, a gesture, a reaction, a received care and love. During childhood and adolescence this need is especially important and strongly influences our development. In the current situation it is harder to openly cater to this need. It is true that we have been “closing” ourselves with the help of the online communication long before the pandemic, but now this process is becoming even more unavoidable. The possibilities for communication, play, rivalry and friendship are getting even more limited. The human contact among the children and the adolescents is partial and is losing its vitality.

We turn into real human beings when we have spiritual and physical encounters with other human beings in a shared physical space. This is essential for developing our ability to contemplate over and become aware of our experiences and thus to build our identity. It is extremely important for the children and the adolescents to confront the world, to be among their mates, to go out of the circle of their adult relatives. To connect with the likes of us is a serious and risky business. The closer we get with someone, the more we reveal ourselves and the more vulnerable we become. However, this is the only path to becoming a complete human being. This path is currently very narrow, and even blocked. This makes us use alternative strategies that limit our world even more and encapsulate it in exchanged online messages, social media pictures and likes. We do not have a full-bodied presence in such a world. The risks in it are fewer, but the possibilities to learn more about ourselves and the others are also very limited. This makes it harder for us to adаpt and to live our life to the fullest.

How do individuals deal with the crisis?

I believe that in this situation it is best to be humble and to avoid hasty forecasts about the future. Such predictions aim to comfort us with the false belief that things are clear and we know what will happen. But let’s try to admit that we do not know how the pandemic will develop and how the human relationships will change in the future.

The only way to become whole people is to connect with others.

Focusing on the present may be a better strategy. Let’s look around and see what is happening. We will see that the connection between people is challenged, but at the same time we will notice a lot of events that impress with their spirit of unity and solidarity. The crisis is like a wind -- it blows in the middle and moves the air simultaneously in the opposite directions.

Do you think that the generation living through this crisis is experiencing a collective trauma?

I think it is too early to say whether and what traumas the COVID-19 crisis will leave. Not to mention that this crisis can actually last for many years.

Was our attitude towards death changed?

During the last decades more and more people live as if they are immortal, as if there is no suffering and end. Or even if there is pain, illnesses and death, they can be avoided if we do the right things. This is an illusion that makes the living meaningless. This illusion makes it even more terrifying to face a crisis and to realise our helplessness (or at least the fact that we are not omnipotent).

The crisis is pushing us to think as a community as a whole.

There is a novel that begins with the statement that only in death there is life. The awareness of death is what truly connects us with life. This awareness opens our senses for the meaning of each choice we make. When we try to deny this awareness we are sucked in a whirlpool of meaningless stimulus and reactions, trying to distract us from the big picture that we were born, we have our way to go, and this way will one day come to an end. Let’s remember the importance of our choices and focus on the things that are important, meaningful and fulfilling. When such things exist in our life we are more likely to successfully live through the crisis.

What is your forecast about the development of our mental health and the crisis for the next 10 years?

Let's not rush the forecasts. There will be changes, but for them we will talk when the time comes. We have many immediate and specific questions about what we are doing now with ourselves and with our daily lives. And this will have its repercussions and influences over the years, which - I hope - await us.

So far, you have spoken from your position as a therapist. And what has changed for you personally?

In the last few months I have thought a lot about what brings me joy, satisfaction and meaning. And I have realised that mostly these feelings come from the fact that I am connected with the other human beings. That the solidarity among us is something that truly exists. That we can be together, even though we are different. That we try to do our best in the context of society. That I belong to a family, different groups and communities. That I give to the others and cooperate with them.

The crises make us think of ourselves as part of the community. It clearly shows that we are interrelated and we depend on each other. Are we able to be together and still keep our differences? How do we form one common and yet inclusive opinion? How do we forgive the weaknesses of the others (or of ourselves), and go forward to build and create? How do we cooperate, without losing ourselves? These are not simple questions. Will we be able to find their answers?  

 The interview with Kimon Ganev is part of my project "How we live now?", which explores the psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and presents the professionals from the frontline of the soul. Read more.

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Autor: Vera Gotseva

Vera Gotseva is a journalist, photographer, photography educator and author of the project "How we live now?", documenting our psyche and inner experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic.