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Many people are now returning to work after spending two months, or more, at home. Although it was difficult to get used to self-isolation at first, going back to their daily activities can also cause many to worry and feel emotional discomfort. Prof. Gunta Ancāne, psychotherapist and Head of the Department and Clinic of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU), talks about what the feelings we are dealing with show about us and what we can learn from this crisis in an interview with the news outlet

When the state of emergency began and people started to work from home, many of us felt a great deal of stress. Now that this order of things is coming to an end and we are slowly returning to our workplaces, people are again experiencing stress. Why is that so?

It is worth looking at the situation more broadly. People are worried about the virus as a whole. New rules, behaviours and ways of protecting oneself have been introduced, but all of this is shrouded in uncertainty. The smartest doctors say that we still do not know much about the virus. People have always been intimidated by uncertainty, and this is an uncertain time.

The situation seems unsettling to some people, while others are coping better.

Emotional crises highlight the strength of one's personality and maturity. People who are less mature, who have invested less effort into working out their feelings and do not know them as well as they should, sometimes feel nothing but anxiety. If these people come to see a doctor, then there is an opportunity to analyse and understand that the anxiety may be based on a strong sense of helplessness that the person has been subjected to repeatedly in their lives. It is convenient for people to associate their anxiety or lack of internal balance with rational factors such as COVID-19, but sometimes it only serves as an excuse.

This time highlights everyone's maturity levels. People are confronted with crises all the time. If a person has experience of being able to cope and become smarter and stronger in the process, they can withstand each subsequent crisis easier and in a more meaningful way. Such a person is less vulnerable to a variety of addictions and diseases that may afflict those unable to endure crises. In situations of emotional crisis, it is very typical for children to experience behavioural disorders that can result in a tantrum. Tantrums shows that there is emotional discomfort. It would be good for parents not to treat them as tantrums, but to try to understand what is causing the child’s discomfort instead.

So can it be said that childhood experience plays a major role in determining a person's ability to endure crisis situations?

The earliest experiences determine everything. In some way, when people are born they are a tabula rasa (a blank slate – ed.). They have synapses (points of communication between neurons – ed.) in their brain, but they are not functioning yet. These connections can function in a thousand and one ways. Children born to well-adjusted parents who create a warm, loving atmosphere at home will not be the same as those born to different parents. If, when a child falls down, parents react calmly, smile and encourage them to get up, they learn that problems can be overcome, and that this can be done in a peaceful way. They go through life and enjoy it. But there are also sad stories where parents have agitated, anxious personalities, so when their child falls down they scare the child with their reactions. Parents' fears and shame about what others might say can also make a child feel like they embody everything that is bad. This is what determines whether people will be convinced that everything around them is a threat as an adult, or whether they will believe they can deal with their problems.

What can we do as adults who cannot change our childhood anymore?

Psychotherapy can help. A good psychotherapist works like a neurosurgeon. It is a very deep method of treatment that changes the structure of one's personality and creates new connections between the synapses, which is the only way to make a person feel better in the long run.

Coming back to the conversation about the current crisis, it can seem to some people that they will lose the freedom associated with working remotely once they return to their office. To what extent is this feeling of freedom imagined?

One could write a book about this, because there is no single answer. The specific profession in question can partly determine the answer. Another aspect is an employee's personal attitude towards their work. There are people who are in the right place and enjoy doing their job, so they will focus on the quality of their work.

There are also people who work only to make money and going to work does not make them happy. I don't mean that they are necessarily “lazy”. Going to work just doesn't bring them joy, and perhaps being at home means they can avoid doing things they don't like.

There are pros and cons to working both remotely and on-site. I think that in the future it would be worth incorporating the two in every profession and workplace. I would urge everyone to come together, talk it through and change their current working style.

After self-isolating, people might find it pointless to spend time commuting or to get dressed for work. What should one do when this feeling of futility takes over?

I don't think that people should just learn to live with it in the sense of trying to suppress this feeling. The first reaction people have to what is happening in their surroundings is always emotional and sensory – feelings come first. For example, when we touch a hot stove, we pull our hand away and only then does the thought come to us that we did that so that we would not get burned. The hand has long been withdrawn from the stove, and only then our mind gets involved. I would invite people to trust in the sensations that come first – if your work seems futile, you should talk about that with your manager. If there is substance to the issues you raise, what kind of manager would choose to ignore it? The feeling of not having any rights, or freedoms may prevent us from starting such a conversation.

Where can you find the courage to talk to your manager if you don't have the confidence that you will be able to express your opinions properly? Can psychotherapy help here as well?

Of course, because feeling useless is an emotional issue. A person might think that their work doesn’t bring them or their manager any good, but then they experience pressure from their family this might result in not being confident enough to go and talk about the issue. It is a situation in which the person adopts an inferior position, believing that their opinion is less important. The person does not know what will happen – the manager might be very respectful to them, but they believe the opposite will happen. It is based on the attitude they received from their parents in their childhood – such people are accustomed to the fact that everything they did as children was bad and wrong. If the child reached for something, the parent said, ‘No, don't take that, I'll give you something else.’ Mother would always know better what should be done.

If the situation is not as complicated and you simply need to overcome the first moments of confusion, you can draw courage from the thought that apart from responsibilities we also have rights. It is not only our right to feel physically and emotionally comfortable, but also our responsibility. Perhaps this thought can help in times of emotional discomfort.

Can you learn the courage you’d need for such conversations by practising and taking small steps in situations where you wouldn’t have expressed your opinion in the past?

Courage is one of the characteristics of psychological health. If a person is mentally healthy, they also possess sufficient levels of courage. Many philosophers have said that there is no such thing as courage, only people who are able to overcome their fears in a given situation.

Those who are psychologically healthy have a little fear in early actions, such as when a child is first addressed by a teacher and it turns into a pleasant experience, they have a nice conversation. If I felt mutual respect, this experience is recorded in my mind, and it is also reflected in the relationship I have with my employer. There may be a little fear at the beginning, but I know that a positive outcome can be achieved in this kind of situation. For many people who have pathological levels of fear, it is difficult to get over this. If so, it would be cruel to say that they must overcome this fear on their own. It must be treated. Doctors can reduce pathological fears to normal levels, because all feelings are good and necessary in the right amounts.

There are those who are concerned that employers could become more demanding after returning to the workplace, because everyone has been working in survival mode for two months, so when coming back to a relatively normal schedule we might be expected to demonstrate better performance. Is that, too, indicative of insecurities? 

It sounds like an emotional disorder of a turbulent personality - first, they imagine a problem and then they already start dealing with it. There was a film that offered a good depiction of the life of turbulent and anxious people - in the evening father and mother go to bed and talk about the fact that their son has not come home yet. What could have happened to him? He is not picking up the phone. So they talk in circles to the point where they think the son has gotten into an accident and they start planning his funeral, then the two of them start fighting over the way the funeral should be held. Then suddenly the son comes home and the situation is resolved. This is the way people with a heightened sense of anxiety perceive their entire lives, with horror and a sense of vulnerability. Why would managers suddenly be more demanding? They are people just like anyone else and they also had to go through this crisis. All in all, people are nice. In the workplace, everybody wants everything to go right so that things can move forward. We tend to make people scarier than they are.

It is interesting to note that employees feel more relaxed and more free to express themselves in remote meetings. Perhaps the reason for this is that in this format everyone feels more equal – their body language is less visible, there is no special layout in the room with someone standing in front of them. Can this experience be transferred to the workplace?

This is what I would invite people to do – don't lose this mental and physical feeling and take it with you to your on-site meetings. Why should our self-esteem change depending on whether or not we have a screen separating us from other people? We must learn to treat others as equals without adopting an inferior position. To establish equal relations, people need to respect each other. This can only happen if they respect themselves.

In an audience of students, sometimes there are people who seem to think that respect means giving credit to others' point of view. In order to build equal relationships it is important that I respect myself and the knowledge and experience I currently have. If I am 20 or 30 years old, I have not read as much and I do not have as much experience as my colleague who is 40 or 50, but I'm on my way to having that.

Good self-respect also means respecting those who are smart, acting in a way to become smarter, and expecting smart people to follow after me. These are general relationship issues that are important both in the context of the current crisis and beyond.

At the beginning of the crisis, many had trouble staying at home because they had to face problems that they could previously escape by going on a trip or to a concert. Could returning to the workplace also mean that it would now be necessary to face problems that we avoided during self-isolation?

Now we are talking about some sort of discomfort. The question is whether to keep it inside and put effort into suppressing it, or rather to overcome fears and confront the problem? Do I avoid going back to work because maybe I do not want to meet the people there? The first step in solving a problem is recognising that there is one. Any problem remains big and overwhelming as long as we cannot define it. In the process, our imagination blows the problem out of proportion.

There is a very good children's book about a little boy who hears a dog barking. He gets scared because he thinks the dog is huge. As the story progresses, the imaginary dog gets bigger and bigger. The little boy runs away from the dog, and in the child's mind the dog is already the size of an elephant. Then a wall appears in front of the child, forcing him to stop. The boy plucks up his courage, turns back and sees that the elephant-sized dog is actually 30 centimetres big. He was ready to face an elephant-sized dog, but this is much easier to deal with.

When you start solving a problem, the mere action of bringing yourself to it makes it easier. I would, therefore, encourage people to take note of what it is that seems disturbing and unpleasant. When we want something, we can do absolutely anything regardless of the circumstances provided that it is physiologically possible.

What can we learn from this crisis?

The situation has been valuable in a sense, because it disturbed the status quo in many countries. People had fallen into a dreamy state as they had stayed in the positive area of the sine wave for a longer period of time. This is the way life goes – it follows a certain rhythm along the sine wave. There is winter, and there is summer, day and night. If there is a period of continued long-lasting prosperity accompanied by unwise calls to think positively, it leads to narrow-mindedness and distancing from reality.

Life is full of challenges, problems, and crises.

In the result of this crisis, many people might remember that problems and crises are a normal part of life, and that everyone is strong enough to deal with them. We return to seeing life as a process of constant development and growth. People tend to overestimate values.

For a moment, people went mad about horoscopes and all sorts of soothsayers, all of whom could supposedly do wonders. If anyone really was clairvoyant, every news outlet would be delighted to hear from them to tell us when this crisis will end. But none of the soothsayers, horoscope writers, or astrologers is coming forward to predict the future. To hide the fact that nothing can be predicted, some refer to famous names, saying that Nostradamus or Vanga anticipated this crisis. If it could be predicted, why can't you foresee when this crisis will end?

During these times, people come to see the importance of relying on knowledge. Universal values are now being reassessed, and people have the opportunity to abandon superstitious beliefs to focus on critical and analytical thinking instead.

The time we live in is normal. We are much happier than people who had to survive wars, long periods of severe unrest, and plagues during which the mortality rate was much higher and medicine was far less developed. The current situation can help us collect our thoughts on what matters so that our lives become more beautiful and fulfilling than they were before.

Sourch: LSM.LV