The voice of the Psychological Help Service: Nikoletta Holch

08/05/2020

Our lives changed overnight. Coronavirus brought about an enforced confinement to which we have had to adapt toute de suite. One of the first steps taken at the UOC in response to this exceptional situation was to set up the online Psychological Support Service, which is available in Catalan, Spanish and English, mornings and afternoons four days a week.

During the service’s first month, there were 46 sessions for the 51 slots available, which means 90% of the slots were taken up.

Want to know who’s on the other end? We spoke to Nikoletta Holch, the psychologist who provides support for all UOC staff members who need it and is helping them face the challenges of this new reality.

What type of therapy do you offer and what are the benefits?

I mostly use brief strategic therapy (BST) techniques with a solution-based focus. That means that, unlike traditional approaches that mostly work by analysing the problem, BST works by introducing changes with intervention that guides the person towards acting differently. BST is based on the idea that problems persist due to failed attempts to solve them.

Normally, when we have a problem, we apply familiar strategies to solve them and, if they work, problem solved. It gets tricky when our strategy fails and, despite this, we keep using it again and again until it becomes a mechanism that makes things worse, or it works in the short term, but in the long run it does more harm.

In brief strategic therapy we use methods that help people change strategy and alter their perspective. One of the most noteworthy aspects of this approach is that the change is fast and lasting, as it involves personal development, a shift in the way a problem is viewed.

What issues or concerns have come to light due to the lockdown or COVID-19?

The current situation marks an important change in everyone’s daily life and, furthermore, it takes an emotional toll that nobody was ready for. I distinguish between two groups of problems related to COVID-19: one is managing life in the current circumstances and the other is managing emotions.

In the first case I find problems of stress and anxiety, above all due to teleworking and trying to balance work and family life. Where we are confined also affects our psychological state. Being stuck in a small flat with no balcony is not the same as a house with a garden. Of course in a small place the simple fact that you can’t move about or find some private space is distressing. Lack of privacy or sunlight affects our emotional state. Families have to manage work, school work, leisure and exercise all in the same place at the same time. Just saying it stresses you out!

Moreover, we’re also dealing with fear of getting sick or of loved ones getting sick, bereavement and anxiety. Being overly fearful leads to obsessive disorders and alters people’s perception, albeit temporarily. I also often find that people are having trouble sleeping or are irritable or depressed.

What advice would give to reduce stress and anxiety caused by confinement?

First of all, I’d say limit the information coming into your home. It’s very important to avoid information overload. It’s better to watch the news in the morning or in the early part of the day, as watching at night can lead to disturbed sleep. I’d also recommend avoiding news with lots of visual content (particularly on social media), as the psychological impact is much greater without really providing much more information.

Secondly, it’s a good idea to lower our expectations or make fewer demands. Considering that we’re having to do so many things together that we normally do separately, in one (usually small) space, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to everything well. Trying to do it all perfectly leaves you exhausted and feeling like a failure. You have to understand that this is an exceptional, unnatural situation and no one’s in it alone. Nobody is coping fully with it, good enough is fine. We each have our own particular circumstances and the important thing is to do what we can without comparing ourselves to everyone else.

Which do you think are the main challenges for UOC people who are teleworking right now?

Judging by the enquiries I’ve handled so far, the greatest concern is balancing work at home with family life and coexistence, and loneliness for those who live alone. The problems that go unnoticed in the day-to-day in communication or in personal relations are now in full view and we’ve no choice but to deal with them.

Do you think the expectations we set ourselves are realistic?  

Increasingly so. At the start of the lockdown we were pretty euphoric, thinking we could cope with anything and we were unaware of how long we would have to ration our energy for. In the weeks that followed we adapted to the situation, lowering our expectations and realizing that we can’t do everything. By the end of the first month, most of us we’re feeling down, exhausted, impatient and wanting it to end. Now I’m seeing that we’re starting to accept the uncertainty, which brings a certain negativity but also more realism. 

Working from home and balancing that with family life is hard and sometimes complicated. What advice would you give to people in this situation?

 First, don’t try to be superparent, superemployee, superfriend, etc. Many people see themselves as antisocial because they avoid video calls from friends and even family. It’s natural not to want to be back in front of a screen when you’ve been sitting in front of one all day. Don’t be afraid to tell people how you feel. Not everyone works online, and maybe it didn’t occur to them.

 Another important issue is the kids’ school work. Each has to do his or her homework as and when they can. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it when everyone else does; don’t compare yourself to them. Remember there are parents that don’t work and have lots of time for their children, but if that’s not you, that doesn’t make you a bad parent. It’s also a great opportunity for overprotected and overstimulated children to learn to amuse themselves, to rediscover toys, to get bored and, thanks to that, to be creative.

It’s a good idea to set up separate areas for different activities, so you can each be alone for a while and take a break from interaction. Being with someone all the time and being constantly interrupted leads to stress and irritability.

Finally, I’d say it’s important to take the easy way, find practical solutions, even though they may not seem ideal. For example, don’t think the house has to be immaculate, every meal has to be super-healthy, the bread home-made, friends and family lavished with attention and happy, all the homework done and you not a gram overweight. For your own good, and for the time being, it’s okay if the house is a little untidy, the kids are playing in the living room, there are dishes in the sink and you’re having frozen pizza for dinner, if you’ve been able to take some time for yourself or to talk to loved ones.

 

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