It’s a week since we were effectively placed in lock down as a nation. It still baffles me how much impact a microscopic virus has had on the world, and how nobody seemed to have anticipated such an event or prepared for it. The situation conjures up memories of those apocalyptic movies that we’ve all seen at some time or another, where the streets are empty, humans hide fearfully in their homes and animals wonder undisturbed through ghost towns. Alongside this, there is the reassuring sense of quietude, with the hope this period of slowing down as a human race will go far in recalibrating the climate, refreshing the environment and reappraising what we value in life.
As a Psychologist, it is always helpful to empathise with the clients and patients I see. In recent days, I am seeing a rise in anxiety, as the period of social distancing begins taking its toll. It’s strange to be helping clients with many of the worries and stresses that I am also contending with, on a daily basis. I too have elderly parents, and members of the family who are vulnerable due to pre-existing health needs. What's more, my friend is unwell, with reduced immunity levels due to chemotherapy. On one hand it’s so helpful to relate to what some of my worried clients are feeling, but on the other it becomes all the more important to maintain therapeutic boundaries – it is rarely, if ever helpful, for the concerns of a client and therapist to blur.
Transference and counter-transference are well known relational dynamics in Psychotherapy. What the client feels can impact the therapist, and vice versa. In subtle ways, dilemmas and challenges in the life of the client, can get played out in the relationship shared with the therapist. Equally, therapists might also enact such patterns, when conversations trigger emotional reactions within them. This has always been so, and can be managed with awareness and supervision. In the case of COVID-19 changes, I wonder just how much more helpful the resonance is, because there is reassurance in the thought that we are all in this together.
For once, I need just as much thought about the shape and structure of my day and week, as the client sitting before me. I also need to review the balance of the various domains of life, which contribute to my sense of stability and wellbeing. Whether this be physical health, maintaining social relationships, emotional self-care, mental stimulation, continuity of work, creativity or spirituality. Where clients may have experienced restrictions to their movement and productivity due to feeling depressed or anxious, I have to manage similar challenges with the current state of isolation and lock-down. Spending large amounts of time in the home with other family members can lead to moments of frustration or disagreement, especially when there are fewer outlets for emotional discharge or distraction. We all benefit from time together, and spaces apart. It requires regular checking in with each other, patience and kindness. It’s an experiment in personal resilience for us all.
Therapists and Psychologists are just human beings, like the clients and patients we see. Of course, this isn’t a revelation, just common sense. We are not immune from mental health challenges, no less than medics are protected from the diseases they treat. What we do in our professional lives is to draw on personal experience, blended with our training, to meet our clients exactly where they are. We ground ourselves in such a way, that we can help with the struggle a client is facing, without falling into it ourselves. The balance between really connecting with a client’s feelings and concerns, without becoming lost in them, is the key to a healthy helping relationship. I often describe this as reaching out to someone who is sinking in quicksand, but with my therapeutic feet stood on solid ground. If I were to fall in too, there would be no way of helping.
I guess the key here, is to know what your solid ground is as a therapist. To know how to get there, and to know what might throw you off balance. Good and regular supervision is of course part of this process, but also the mutually fulfilling relationships we have at home, in our families and in our wider network of friends. These relationships also extend to our connection to interests and sources of sustenance, which replenish us so that we can keep giving, without becoming drained ourselves. The COVID-19 period is bringing this need into sharp focus, and as such is a learning experience for us all, clients and therapists alike.
Dr Bobby Sura BSc Hons, PG Dip, DClinPsy, CPsychol
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist
Dr Bobby Sura is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist specialising within the field of lifespan and family based mental health needs. He has over 20yrs NHS experience and 13yrs in the private sector, being the founder of Clinical Psychology Direct and Director for Solihull Well Being Clinic. Dr Sura is Chartered with the British Psychological Society (BPS), Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP), Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) with eligibility for registration with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and Association of Family Therapy (AFT).