Linda Breathnach, Psychotherapist and Lecturer, analyses how this pandemic has been affecting our behaviour and mental health.
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Interview by: Vithoria Escobar
VE: If you start by introducing yourself and your work.
LB: Linda Breathnach MIACP is an accredited counsellor and psychotherapist with 20 years’ experience of working with couples, individuals and groups. She runs a busy private practice, is a lecturer for PCI College and she also runs Online Talks and Corporate Workshops. In the last few weeks she has been presenting Online Wellness Talks with up to 100 participants at a time for companies across Ireland, helping them to support their employees in getting to grips with Covid-19 and the challenges it brings.
VE: What are the main differences you see in your work, as a psychotherapist and lecturer, in the current scenario? How are you finding this adjustment to remote work?
LB: I now see all my clients, individuals and couples, online. I am also lecturing remotely online and the Corporate Training and Wellness Talks have also fully moved remotely online. I am pleasantly surprised at how well it is working. I spend a lot of time in the beginning, contracting with the individual couple or group to address the boundaries of this new dynamic, addressing and pre-empting any challenges that it might bring in advance and that really seems to help. It’s not perfect of course. There are some elements missing like it is harder to pick up the energy in the room. Another example is if I am working with a couple, I like to keep making eye contact with the person who is not speaking but this is more difficult through a screen. Likewise, when working with groups, some people mightn’t have their camera switched on or if they do, you can’t read the body language below the neck the way you might in a face-to-face scenario. However, this new modality is a very close second to the old way and the feedback is that it is working well.
VE: Obviously being isolated and dealing with a pandemic is very overwhelming, but sometimes we don’t realize how it affects our mental health. What are you perceiving in people’s mental health since the pandemic has started? Is there anything in particular that has been calling your attention?
LB: Absolutely. It is well known that our own self-care and mental health can be forgotten in any crisis. It is interesting that you use the word “isolated” because I think that in itself is contributing to an escalation of mental health challenges today. When we work remotely, it is more difficult to have the little one on one connections that you might have over a cuppa before a meeting. We may have taken it for granted before but there are so many non-tangible benefits to that small-talk and human connection that we are now missing out on.
Also, I have been hearing a lot from people about how they are choosing “not to burden” their friends or family members who want to support them, instead, they are withdrawing, isolating, and keeping their anxieties and fears to themselves. I keep reminding people that it is normal and human to feel anxious, scared, overwhelmed, frustrated, or whatever other emotions we might be feeling but we need to manage our spiraling thoughts that might come from that. If we isolate ourselves and don’t share these thoughts that are often irrational, then they go unchallenged (the way they normally might if we said it to somebody supportive) and they become assumptions (with no foundation in fact) leading to further thoughts and assumptions that can be illogical at best and damaging at worst.
VE: The Covid-19 pandemic is the global focus right now therefore being informed is very important. However, we see an overload of news and also social media content (with many being fake news) about the pandemic, which may stress us out. How to find this balance of being informed without feeling anxious?
LB: I’ve always believed that “information is power”. Not knowing and trying to imagine scenarios is always worse than having knowledge and actual facts. However, you’re right. There has been an overload of information and it feels like it has been getting increasingly difficult to find anything not related to Covid 19 in social or mainstream media. This might also be because when we are in lockdown and sports, concerts, conferences, and even soap operas have been stopped, there is no other news! I think it is important to stay informed but on a “need to know” basis. It isn’t necessary to check the news for updates any more than once a day and in fact, it can become an unhealthy obsession if we don’t manage ourselves around that. With regard to the last part of that question, “without feeling anxious”, I think this is an impossible task. These are anxious times and it is unrealistic for us as humans to expect not to be affected. What matters is how we mind ourselves around this anxiety. If we can be kind to ourselves, allowing these normal human emotions, taking it slowly while also watching the spiraling thoughts, we can prevent it from escalating or becoming much worse.
VE: Many people feel pressured to be productive or to create or to exercise since we are all mostly at home. Is it possible to stay motivated? How can we address these feelings?
LB: Spending all of this time at home is providing lots of opportunities to get those tasks done that we put off for so long or to take up hobbies that we’ve always wanted to do. This is a good thing. However, when we are in a state of fear or anxiety, we are not going to feel free to be creative or innovative or productive. We go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Again, this is normal and understandable and how we treat ourselves around this is important in order to be able to allow it to pass and not get worse. If we can show ourselves some compassion the way we might do to a friend, acknowledging that we are not going to be creative or productive when we feel like this but that we will not be feeling like this forever, it will help these challenging emotions to pass quicker and to feel less overwhelming.
VE: Talking about motivation and work-related challenges people are facing at the moment. Our survey found that workers are struggling with communication, with both clients and teams. What is your perception of this and how workers, especially leaders, can manage the issue in the best way?
LB: Yes, this is a difficult one. If people are feeling anxious, scared, or overwhelmed as I mentioned earlier, many are either withdrawing fully and not returning calls or e-mails or else they are showing up but wearing a mask and pretending everything is ok when it is not. This can be hugely detrimental to communication as well as very confusing when nobody knows what is really going on underneath. I have been using the Iceberg image to describe this in my Corporate Talks lately. We just don’t know what is happening for people underneath. They might be complaining about one issue or channeling their anger, fear, or overwhelm towards a manager or colleague when really it might be nothing to do with that but more about whatever is challenging them deep down. This is really hard to deal with. I am not expecting workers and leaders to become expert counselors overnight but just keeping this iceberg image in our awareness and focusing more on listening rather than defending or solving can actually work quite well in these scenarios. Sometimes people just need to rant or offload and if employees feel heard and understood in these most challenging times, this will really help with communication and working relationships in general. Of course, this also has to be balanced with personal and professional boundaries, as well as the leader’s own self-care. Slow down, the solutions will come, but now, more than ever, we need to listen, encourage, and support.
VE: Many of these workers are also parents, some of them one-parent families. So worker, parent, partner. How to manage all these roles at the same time? Also, how do we balance self-care and duties?
LB: Wow! My first answer to this is we can’t! It’s impossible! As a mum of 4 myself with a very supportive husband, I know that we are never going to achieve any sort of “perfect balance” the way things are. However, there is huge power in just accepting that, staying in the moment and focusing on what needs to be done right now. If you have an upcoming zoom call, a wash to put on, homeschooling and cocooning parents you need to check in with, then you just have to prioritise, do what’s most important first and get through the day step by step. There is so much written on being “Good Enough” and now more than ever, we need to remind ourselves that “good enough is good enough”. Two other phrases I’ve used a lot are “Share the load” (emotionally and practically – offload to friends, stay connected through zoom or otherwise, let family members help with cocooning parents, give kids more credit and let them help around the house etc.) and “Stay in the moment” (take it one step at a time, focus on what we can control, write a done list as well as a “to do” list). In terms of self-care, we need to also literally put this on the “To Do List” and prioritise it to be as important as the other people we are caring for. The well used analogy of putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first before helping others on the airplane comes to mind here. We can’t look after anybody else if we have collapsed on the floor without oxygen. Self-care is not about being selfish but it is about being as kind to ourselves as we are to others and practicing what we preach.
VE: To those parents with young kids, how do we communicate what is happening to them? Especially considering that we might not have answers to their questions, for example, “when things will get back to normal?”
LB: This is another tricky one but I think in general, parents know their children best and what their children are able for hearing and how. One thing I will say is something I learned the hard way myself – Ask more questions of your child before answering their first question. Sometimes we can be at risk of hearing their question in an adult context or assuming that they are worrying or thinking about things in the same serious way that we are but often this is not the case! A child asking about when things will “get back to normal” might have a particular reason in mind, eg. when they can play with their friend, see their grandparents, go to the playground, on holiday or a birthday party. If we ask more questions before we answer, we can have a better idea of the context that the child is coming from and answer with that in mind rather than answering with all the details of the Roadmap with the 5 phases of the Restrictions being lifted, etc!
Above all, I just keep reminding myself as a parent what my children need from me. They need to feel safe and secure but they also need to trust and to know that what I’m saying is true because if they don’t believe me, they might start imagining their own alternative answers and as I said earlier, factual information is always much better to have than an overactive imagination. However, these facts should be presented in an age-appropriate and positive and reassuring way with relevance to the child’s own concerns and worries which are often a lot more black and white and simpler than our own.
VE: Any tips or simple habits to smooth our routine?
LB: It is hard to give general advice because everybody is going through so many different journeys. I love the analogy that we are not all in the same boat but facing the same storm in our own different boats with its unique challenges that are personal to us. With this in mind, I would remind people not to make comparisons with others but instead, to work on staying true to themselves.
In terms of “making the most of it”, I suppose I would suggest to people to have a think and reflect on what that actually means for them personally. Maybe it means just taking a rest, or using the opportunity to have a clearout in the home, it might mean reflecting on your whole career path or taking the time to finally consider difficult life decisions. Above all, I would suggest that people be kind to themselves -this is a challenging enough time without adding to it by putting pressure on ourselves. Take it slowly and remember that this too will pass.
Linda Breathnach MIACP is a Psychotherapist, Lecturer, Trainer and Supervisor Across Professions. She has 20 years’ experience of working with couples, individuals, and groups in therapeutic and corporate environments.
She runs a busy private practice, is a lecturer for PCI College and she also runs Online Talks and Corporate Workshops.
Linda holds an IACP Accredited Diploma in Counselling from Northside Counselling Services, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy from DCU, a Diploma in Advanced Supervision across Professions from ICPPD, an Advanced Diploma in Group Facilitation from Meitheal, and QQI accredited Train the Trainer Cert.
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