Asking a Psychotherapist

The Covid-19 pandemic has been affecting us for over a year now. The bedroom has become the lecture hall, changes and new fears have envolved that we did not know before. In short, the virus has taken over our everyday lives. To find out how it affects us psychologically, I asked an expert:

Dr. Hans Hartmann (Photo: Jessen Fotografie)

Dr. Hans Hartmann is a psychotherapist, psychiatrist and neurologist. After almost 20 years of professional experience in his own practice, since 2013 he has been the head physician at the Elly-Heuss-Knapp-Haus, a mother/father-child health resort of the German Red Cross in Plön. At the same time, Dr. Hartmann is an author and in 2017 he published the book „Wege aus dem Mama-Burnout. Abstand gewinnen und neue Kraft tanken“ (in English: “Ways out of mother-burnout. Gain distance and recharge your batteries”).

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on many areas of work. For example, university operations have been running from home offices for many months. What does that do to people?

The changes brought about by the Corona pandemic on all of us are different. For each individual, there is almost always the worry about getting ill, concerns about the course of the disease in the event of illness, and even fears for our lives. Often there are also contagion fears like what will it do to me if I infect others?  In addition to personal fears and concerns about the family, there are also social fears. Will I lose my job, will I be able to cope with a home office job? How will I cope with financial losses? Can I continue to finance my studies?  How can I cope with the distance to other family members, friends and acquaintances during contact restrictions or in case of quarantine?  These are questions that occupy us.

In your book you address “stress and its symptoms”. Would you describe the pandemic and the resulting changes as a possible stress trigger?

Yes, the pandemic is a serious stress trigger in the family, but also in partnerships or for the individual. Suddenly everyone is at home, in a small space, which is a serious stressor. The boundaries between the “outside world and the family world” have been erased. School and the workplace have moved to the dining table or the living room. The daily structures are abolished.

What are the consequences?

Restlessness and nervousness, inner and outer tension and lack of patience are harbingers that the stress is no longer regulated in a sustained manner. Often there are sleeping disorders, but also physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, appetite disorders or increased blood pressure. Besides, concentration disorders, frustration and listlessness up to depressive mood and drive disorders. Further, there is projective blaming. This means that conflicts are only carried out aggressively and in an unfair manner. Constructive solutions and benevolent cooperation are lost or, to put it another way, empathy dwindles, the view narrows to a tunnel.

Who suffers most from Isolation?

According to my observations, children suffer the most from the situation, because of their stressed parents and the lack of their previously accustomed structures. But also affected individuals who have to mourn the loss of relatives in addition to their pandemic experience or who are also affected by their severe post-Covid symptoms. Furthermore, the socially existentially affected people, isolated elderly people, as well as mentally ill people.

What do you recommend to those who are particularly suffering from the current situation?

To generally lift the isolation.  Establishing telephone and video contacts, including direct exchanges with masks in the small number of people allowed, while respecting distance and hygiene rules, recently with the possibility of a prior antigen test. In addition, outdoor activities as often and as much as possible, as nature helps regulate stress. Besides, exchanging conversations, discovering new hobbies or reviving old contacts by writing letters. Further, joining self-help groups and seeing how others cope with the situation. In case of persistent and/or severe physical and mental symptoms seek medical and professional help at an early stage and do not be afraid to seek help.

At the time of their studies, many people are in a kind of discovery phase on their way to adulthood. One thinks of new friendships, well-filled lecture halls, also evenings in crowded bars and pubs. Instead, many have to move back into their parent`s house or spend classes alone in their one-room flat, behind one of the many black tiles in the Zoom meeting. Does this isolation have an impact on personal development?

Isolation is problematic and not without danger in the long run, since we humans are a “zoon politicon”, a communal being, as Plato already formulated. Life is movement, life is relationship. In this respect, the previously mentioned strategies also apply to young people at university.  However, for students, such a period of time is, in my opinion, also an opportunity for self-discovery. There is also the relationship with oneself, where the academically accomplished young person also has resources available that not everyone else has in a comparable way. Time, intellectual interests, skills with access to the literary and artistic world, whose offerings and content are inexhaustible. At other times and in other cultures, people have chosen forms of isolation precisely for a path of self-discovery and individuation. Here I see an opportunity to learn to “endure”, to experience “being in contact with oneself” as enrichment and not just as a lack.

What can you recommend in order to maintain a work-life balance in the home office?

A balance should be created with sport and exercise, e.g. one hour home office – 20 minutes exercise, and as well with contacts in the world in the here and now, observing the pandemic rules. If there is a partnership, intensify this exchange with mutual storytelling, reading aloud, playing games, discovering new creative hobbies (painting, pottery, woodworking), try to play a musical instrument; “Creative resources” alongside intensive exercise is the key.

Are there also people who find it beneficial for their psyche to work from home?

For a certain group of people, the home office is a relief and “discovery”: They gain self-confidence in the digital world, and they experience that tasks can be managed well, and problems can be solved. Furthermore, for employees who have long commuting times, the home office workplace is a real advantage and time saver, including savings on travel costs. This group of people experiences significant relaxation. People with social anxiety or contact difficulties often report relief, although this involves the risk of developing avoidance behaviour.

Finally, let’s imagine that the pandemic is over and “normal” everyday life returns. Can we simply put what has happened behind us or will we have psychological difficulties sitting down in the crowded lecture hall/office again?

Superficially, we will all be looking forward to the full lecture hall and the busy office, as we all long for the pandemic to be over. A large number of people not directly affected by the pandemic will presumably go back to their daily lives without any psychological difficulties, breathing a sigh of relief at the regained “normality”. The group of people directly affected will suffer psychologically from the losses caused by the pandemic. Depending on the resilience of the individual, depression, fear of the future and fear of life may remain in the long term as a result of the experience of loss, and require professional treatment. Concentration and learning disorders in children and adolescents, including students, are to be expected in a not inconsiderable percentage – 20-30 % of the affected group – so far, the data is only estimated. A group of differentiated people will be able to chalk up the pandemic as a borderline experience, with gratitude for the help and structures of our health system (for all its weaknesses) and the experience that health is a high good which cannot be taken for granted, that pandemics and natural events can affect our lives and that we remain aware of our finiteness.

If you need professional help, you can find the appropriate numbers here.

Mental Illness During The Corona Pandemic