How to survive the Coronavirus Epidemic: An Interview with Psychologist Elizabeta Vovko of IPA Slovenia

09 Jun 2020


The coronavirus epidemic makes us face numerous challenges, both in our private and professional life. This new situation also brought a lot of uncertainty, doubts, and worries. Such feelings are completely normal in the circumstances, says Elizabeta Vovko, a psychologist who is employed in the Slovenian police force and is a member of IPA Slovenia. Changeable situations and an uncertain future definitely burden our everyday life, yet a crisis can also be an opportunity to relearn what really matters in life. elizvovko

 

What information do you have about the psychological response of people to the current situation? 

Following the announcement of the Covid-19 epidemic and now, after almost two months of social isolation, we are responding to our experiences, situations in our private life and at our workplace. Our response depends on several factors: some of us live in cities, some in the countryside; we might live by ourselves, or with a big family; some live in houses with gardens where there is a lot of space, while some in smaller flats, where they have nowhere to isolate themselves from other family members; some are extroverts and need more social interaction in everyday life, while others are more introverted and enjoy time on their own more. This time is a unique challenge for each of us.

The current situation is still uncertain, which diminishes our feeling of safety and stability. Our psychological well-being can be negatively affected by longer periods of limited interaction with others, changed daily routines, worrying about our health and the health of the people close to us, and also financial concerns. Individuals with pre-existent mental health conditions, people with chronic diseases and those working in professions that are fighting the epidemic on the frontline are particularly susceptible to psychological distress.

Various emotions can be present among people: fear when we feel threatened; anxiety, when we feel that we cannot handle the situation well and control it; worry when we imagine future negative outcomes of the current situation; panic, when we think that the catastrophe is unavoidable and we have to react quickly. Emotions like anger, impulsiveness and aggressive reactions might appear. In families where violence was already present, the latter might increase. Substance abuse might worsen as well. Denial, fearlessness, and underestimation of danger might happen among individuals, which might lead to endangering others because of not respecting the safety measures.  On the other hand, such a crisis might enhance our creativity, altruism and help for those in need, through volunteering.

 

How to survive isolation so that the virus will not attack our mental state? How can we take care of ourselves?

Taking care of ourselves means that we are first focused on our thinking and feelings. We listen to ourselves, what we need in social isolation. To get through the isolation more easily, it is important to establish a daily routine, which provides predictability and feelings of order, meaning and control. We should make sure to get proper rest and sleep and choose healthy food. When in stress or distress, our craving for sweet and fatty food increases, which only worsens our mood. If we have the possibility, we should be active in nature, otherwise we could also use one of the rooms in our flat as a gym. There are many workout videos available online, with different types of exercise, pilates, yoga, etc. We should practice relaxing techniques, such as controlled breathing, wakefulness, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation.

I recommend maintaining good relationships with family members and friends through modern social networks. Aside from taking care of oneself we should also pay attention to those we are staying at home with. Let us organise watching a movie together, play board games or be creative. However, it is a good idea to reserve some time that each individual has for themself so that we won’t be under pressure due to a sudden increase in the time we spend together. Available time should be used for pleasant activities, such as reading books, listening to music, editing photos. Let us help others. When we gather a broader perspective and ask ourselves what we can do to help people close to us and our community, it becomes easier to accept what is happening to us, and how we deal with the situation.

 

Should we be afraid of our fear? Can we allow ourselves to be worried and in fear? 

It is unnecessary to be afraid of our worries and fears. Fear is a completely normal and common emotion in such circumstances, which are new for us and represent uncertainty of the future. In such times we can also be worried about us or someone close to us becoming infected. We can also feel at unease regarding the duration of the epidemic, the effect it poses on our lives, the potential or actual loss of a job and with that a diminished feeling of security. It is also absolutely normal that at the beginning of the epidemic we were concerned about the supply of common goods and how will we be able to take care of our family members. It is important that we do not let ourselves overthink the current situation in order to avoid feelings of fear. We should not discuss the worst possible scenarios. It helps to consider that the situation is only temporary. People often need some time to adjust to changes. If we understand that the measures we need to take are only for a limited time, that might help overcome unpleasant feelings.

 

Are anxiety and feelings of loneliness normal in these times?

Anxiety and feelings of loneliness are normal and natural emotions in times of uncertainty. The majority of people feel the same. The feeling of loneliness in an individual is less intense if we are surrounded by family members and if we have good prior relationships. The feeling of loneliness is also not that severe if we are in touch with ourselves, if we are able to be alone and we do not need certain activities or people to fill our time and feelings of emptiness in order to feel normal.

 

 

 

In times when measures are changing every single day, we are obliged to watch news reports and follow information online, although this might be an even greater burden. Can following all this information lead to even worse fears and panic? How to determine what amount of information should we follow?

Following all available information might lead to even greater fear, anxiety, or panic. This can worsen if we encounter unconfirmed information or follow different posts at online portals and on different social networks. Individuals and media that dramatise and forward information in a sensational manner, might worsen feelings of fear and uncertainty. If we are constantly confronted with scenes and news regarding the coronavirus, this might cause more anxiety rather than be helpful for us. It is enough to follow television news from reliable sources in order to familiarise ourselves with the current situation and to know how to properly follow the recommendations.

 

covmaskThe elderly, especially the ones living alone, are now even lonelier. What can we do for them, aside from bringing them groceries and giving them a call?

The elderly are the most vulnerable group in this situation, particularly if they are sick and live by themselves. In times of coronavirus there are even more scammers offering various favours: paying bills, paid rides, selling protection products, etc. We can warn elderly people of possible frauds and inform them where to turn for help, or we might help them ourselves. To lessen their feeling of loneliness, we can call them more often through videocalls. We can talk to them from balcony to balcony if we live in an apartment block and this is an option. We have seen videos of residents playing instruments and singing. I have heard about a case where a girl living in an apartment block plays the violin and always opens the doors to the corridor to make an older neighbour happy. The elderly will also be delighted in receiving letters or drawings from their grandchildren or children living in their neighbourhood.

 

Some must work from home and also take care of children and families. How to organise work and time? How to manage the time of quarantine with children, especially if parents work from home?

Isolation, parents' jobs and educating children at home is a burden for all family members. The basic goal is to achieve that the situation will be the least stressful for everyone. It is reasonable to maintain a routine and determine what part of the day we do home office, and when the kids should carry out their school tasks. We should divide household chores. It is a good idea to specify the leisure time when we can do some relaxing activities together, such as playing with children, playing board games, going for a walk and other activities in nature. We should allow the possibility that each family member gets some time for themselves. Time for watching television, using smart phones, and playing videogames should also be specified. Weekends should be organised somehow differently than weekdays, although the differences are minimal.

 

The situation forced us to work from our home office, there is considerably less physical interaction with co-workers. What would you advise managers about how to lead their employees from a distance?

Working from a distance demands clear definition of goals and the role of each worker in achieving the goals we set. The most important is to also stay focused on people in the group, and not only on the goals they should reach. We should dedicate some free time for personal interaction. Regular and scheduled meetings through videocalls contribute to good personal interaction. In addition to distributing tasks, we should also set deadlines, regularly check if they are appreciated and review the work that is done. It is important to have an authentic relation with employees and trust that individuals are doing their work even though they are not at the workplace with us. When working from home, everyone works in a different environment, everyone with their own distractions. Some might have pets at home, small kids that interrupt during calls, etc.

 

What has history taught us about similar cases of epidemic and pandemic? What kind of events are they, psychologically speaking, most similar to? To circumstances at the beginning of a war, terrorist attacks, economic and political crises?

The coronavirus pandemic is in some news reports equated to the situation at the start of a war and greater economic crises. It is about the fact that the basic feeling of security is replaced by uncertainty and lack of control over our life. Experiencing crisis usually passes certain phases. People first react in a state of shock, we are scared, lost, in panic, but we manage to get back quite quickly. The second phase is a denial of reality, when we try to tackle new circumstances in our old way, which often turns out as unsuitable. This continues until the moment of realisation that we cannot go on like that anymore. What follows is a phase of frustration and desperation. After realising that something is over, the phase of mourning happens. The latter is very healing for people – that is when we can finally say goodbye to previous times. This is called the phase of final farewell or final acceptance of a new reality. Afterwards, the phase of development follows, when we are ready to take a look into what the crisis situation brings, what the inevitable changes are and what should we learn and do.

 

What good can we expect from it? What will we finally think through if anything?

Crisis is an opportunity for something new. If we ever wanted the world to stop, when we were rushing through every day, well now it has really stopped. We finally have the time for ourselves. Those of us who are in our working environment and a part of solving the situation during the time of isolation – we do not have such time. During the crisis we can consciously discover how we think, feel, react, and function. We can think about our values, what matters to us and the people that are close to us. We can freshly define proper healthy behaviour. We can discover what else do we need to do for ourselves, society, and our planet in the future. During this time carbon dioxide emissions decreased; it was shown that Earth is less polluted. I have a feeling that one third of people will be able to actualise new ways of behaving and functioning. One third will think about that and hesitate between their old patterns and new behaviour. One third will stick to their old ways and probably eagerly waits for the world to return back to normal. Yet the question remains if it ever will.

 

Anita Kovačič, Public Relations IPA Slovenia