One of the big challenges of this crisis is that it simultaneously makes us feel the conflicting urges for empathy and alienation

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Sofia Ferdinandova e a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and and trainer. She has 20 years experience as an individual and group psychotherapist and 15 years experience as a group trainer for the psychodrama method.

You are psychotherapist and trainer. What changed in your work when the COVID 19 crisis stroke?

The pandemic made us move our work online and this has both advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that we can still keep working with our clients and it makes the discomforts of the online sessions (like being hard to find an isolated and suitable place at home or having technical issues) worth it. Still the online communication does not have the full authenticity and richness of real life human contact. To some extent the screen influences how we perceive the emotions of the other person and how we convey ours, it puts some limitations on our spontaneity and creativity, and, last but not least, it does not show our whole body and thus takes away part of our physical presence. The meetings between people are most natural and complete when the participants are fully present - both psychologically and physically, when they can unrestrictedly exchange not only words, but everything that is beyond speech. That is what makes the therapist office such a special place for secure and authentic sharing and we definitely miss this unique territory for human and professional encounters.

What changes have you witnessed in the psyche of your clients during the last year? What is happening with the physical human contact and closeness?

Last year was truly unusual and affected all of us. It messed up our everyday life, took away our security and control, questioned our values and priorities like truth, choice, being connected and being alone, being free and being responsible. We long to be with the others and at the same time we are afraid to. We live in a contradictory and unpredictable world with hostile edges and sometimes painful personal losses. The crisis made our weaknesses, hidden impulses and personal conflicts more visible. At the same time it gave us a chance to tidy up, introduce some new good practices and connect in a more authentic and complete way. In this tense situation it is absolutely normal that most people feel anxious and worried and are more sensitive and emotional. These are logical consequences of the prolonged and intensive stressful period. I like to call this “increased internal seismic activity”.

How do individuals deal with the crisis?

Different people deal with the situation differently. Their reactions depend on the specific circumstances in their life during this period, the support they can count on, their beliefs about the meaning of life, and also on their personal resilience and resources to cope with difficulties and traumatic experiences. And this is true not only for our client, but for all of us. We are all human beings with our worries and coping strategies.

It may be said that the crisis has hit so hard our known, predictable and secure reality, that it is now dead.

Some people seem to freeze in uncertainty and panic, others try to escape from the anxiety and fear by denying them, yet others try to fight back by aggressive hostility and alienation. All of these people have their logical, and more often unconscious, reason to react that way. Fortunately many people have a more balanced response to this crisis. They try to be aware of their real feelings, even if they are not that pleasant and comfortable and yet to keep a reasonable and critical attitude towards the reality. They are cautious and prudent in their behaviour but still understanding and caring towards the others. They manage to take care of themselves, while staying connected.

Was our attitude towards death changed?

Death is one of the basic subjects that challenges the human mind. It is simultaneously exciting and scary and hard to talk about. Nothing makes us feel more alive and at the same time more numb than realising the fact we are mortal. During my sessions this year, I realised that people are very surprised how much our attitude towards death and our beliefs about what comes after it influence the choices we make in our life each day. Our understanding about what is beyond shapes our way of life here and now. It also shapes our relationship with death: how we perceive it and how we overcome it, when we cross ways with it. We were abruptly reminded about this relationship by the pandemic. Both death and pandemic suddenly turned from a distant and abstract topic that we hear about on the news into a very close and unpleasant reality. Death is no longer an intellectual concept, it is a palpable fact. We perceive such important things in quite a different way, when they become part of our reality and are no longer something that exists somewhere in general.

Death stormed in our day-to-day life not only as a topic for discussion, but as something that really happens, something that takes lives away and leaves trauma and fear behind.

How we react to death depends on our own history, experience with trauma, sensibility, beliefs and coping strategies. For many people, including some of my clients, the topic is not new. Some of them have already been through hard personal losses, other have serious life-threatening diseases, others witness pain and death every day as part of their work, and there are people that go through all of the above at one and the same time. On one hand the experience of such people seems to have prepared them for this current rise in the significance of the “death” topic. On the other hand what they have already been through has burdened them with a lot of psychological fatigue and the memory of their previous traumatic experiences can be vividly brought back by the current situation. It may be said that the crisis has hit so hard our known, predictable and secure reality, that it is now dead. And we all go through a mourning process with all its typical phases.

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

Мисля, че тепърва ще започнем да усещаме истинския мащаб и дълбочина на посттравматичния стрес, предизвикан от тази криза. Добре е, че може би най-после ще има истинско осъзнаване на изключителната важност на психичното здраве на човека, който е главна ценност, а не просто ресурс. Още по-добре би било, ако успеем да реагираме адекватно, което означава една простичка за изричане, но не и за реализиране дума – грижа. Трудностите и предизвикателствата, през които е изправена психиката ни през последната година, не са изчезнали и продължават да дават своето отражение. Към това обаче се прибавя и факторът „време“. Както казват, ако държиш чаша с вода няколко минути, тя почти не тежи, но ако я държиш няколко часа, става непосилно тежка. Така и нашите защитни ресурси не са безкрайни и започват да сработват по-трудно и неефективно, и постепенно да се изчерпват.

Although dramatic, the situation provokes us to ask important and difficult questions.

Тази натрупана психична умора ни прави още по-уязвими и реактивни едновременно, което пък дава шанс по-лесно да избуят вътрешните ни и междуличностните ни конфликти, да се обострят емоционално слабите ни точки и предразположености. Затова в идните години е много вероятно да се развият и задълбочат множество психични проблеми като тревожности, депресивни състояния, агресия, отчуждение и трудности в свързването, бърнаут, злоупотреби с различни вещества, хранителни разстройства, хазарт, психосоматични проблеми и т.н. Същевременно ще имаме възможност да се срещнем истински и може би да преформулираме част от приоритетите, ценностите, нуждите и най-вече разбирането си за смисъл – и на индивидуално, и на обществено ниво. Макар и по драматичен начин, ситуацията ни провокира да си задаваме важните и трудни въпроси, и може би да пренаредим живеенето си в повече пълноценност и споделеност.

And what comes after this “overview on-the-go” about the crisis and how we live through it?

One of the big challenges of this crisis is that it simultaneously makes us feel the conflicting urges for empathy and alienation. Where we stand between these two has its role for how we deal with the challenging psychological processes. Choosing empathy means that while you live through your personal pain, you will also be able to connect with the others and understand their pains too. While choosing alienation means that you will close yourself in your own personal pain and you will not be able to connect emotionally with anyone outside your personal experience. So this choice really matters.

And what changed for you in a strictly personal aspect?

For me, the past year was challenging, disruptive and a little too interesting for my liking. At the same time I appreciate the chance this extraordinary situation provided us to re-evaluate what is truly important and why, who we are and who we choose to be, how we are connected and how we love, what makes us happy and what makes us sad. These so-called more abstract, existential topics, that are usually silenced by the everyday noise, are actually the most important ones. I often think of a saying, whose author I have unfortunately forgotten: “in our culture we tend to provide solutions for problems we have never truly experienced”. Well, year 2020 and its state of emergency made us all experience the problems, not only contemplate them. We were forced to feel and act here and now. For me this is not always an easy process, but it is still priceless. 

Apart from making me focus on these deeply personal questions, the past year also brought me a different and much stronger feeling of connectedness, togetherness and interdependence with the others. I affect you, you affect me, the “we” of today affect the “we” of tomorrow. Of course I have been aware of this connectedness before, but it is only now that I realise its true dimensions, additionally augmented by the social network phenomenon. I now appreciate much more and I am simply grateful for the unique closeness of the meeting with my closest people.

The crisis is the cause and occasion of "seismicity", but not an alibi for our choice to get stuck in hostility and rejection.

I try, as much as I can, to remove the excessive distractions from my heart and mind, as well as the world around; to give more support than advice and to be more tolerant when I, or someone else, fail to do so. It seems to me that there is a secondary pandemic of hostile assertiveness, intolerance and aggression in the words and the attitudes. Breathing the atmosphere of toxic communication is as unhealthy as breathing viruses. It seems that our opinions clash more often than meet, that we see more dividing lines than connecting ones. It is worrisome how easy we label as “bad” someone that does not share our opinion and how fast we are to use verbal aggression. 

Of course, it might be expected that during such a big and challenging crisis it will be hard for us to be confronted with a different opinion. We become more impulsive and defensive. However, it is a matter of choice and responsibility to overcome our impulsive initial response and follow up with a more mature and conscious reaction. The crisis normally makes us more unstable, but it is not an excuse to get stuck in hostility and intolerance. If even half of the energy we put in fighting with the others and proving our rightfulness is redirected to peaceful purposes like self-reflection, empathy, rationality and compassion true miracles might happen.

 The interview with Sofia Ferdinandova 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.