Balancing act: How a psychologist manages Covid-19 pressures

‘When I finally park at home, I always take the time to take a few deep breaths for a few seconds’

 

“The guilt of not sharing the lockdown experience with the family is something which, from time to time, makes its appearance,” says clinical psychologist Alexandra Duque as she explains how her workload has dipped and spiked as the pandemic has progressed. “Because I am working outside, it would mean that if Covid finds its way into the family, I will be the one to blame, despite the rest of the family taking the toll of staying at home to protect themselves and others.”

Alexandra is a counselling and psychology specialist based in Co Cork who has experienced three vastly different lockdowns considering at the beginning, mental health was not deemed an essential service. “We were not allowed to do face-to-face appointments except in the case of emergencies. So, despite being in the clinic to do the online sessions, most people I was working with simply dropped out of therapy and the caseload dramatically dropped.”

While this allowed more time for Alexandra to spend with her two daughters, aged 6 and 3, and afforded her husband more support while he worked from home, it was a temporary occurrence as the mental health crisis intensified.

“People started to feel the increasing impact of Covid on their mental health,” she says. “The caseload started to increase dramatically, to the point where I have no time slots available to answer the increasing demand from both the people I had been working with pre-Covid and people on the waiting list. It has led to more working hours, both at and away from home, in a blend of online and face-to-face appointments.”

Clinical psychologist Alexandra Duque.
Clinical psychologist Alexandra Duque.

The adjustment to family life was “a work in progress” for Alexandra and her family. “The first few days, as no one really knew what was coming ahead, was felt as family time,” she says. “I was not yet concerned with establishing their routine, or mine, or the family’s, so we were having a lot of movie nights and outdoor time in our garden, and not a lot of structure. The fear had not yet set in.”

But, as Alexandra says, “the isolation and different routines, or even lack of routines, has taken a huge toll, not just on adults but also, deeply, on children,” as we find ourselves a year into restrictions and closures.

“My daughters, being very social and emotional people,” she says, “despite having each other to play with, crave interaction with their peers and meaningful adults in their lives.” The pandemic has thwarted all of our attempts to maintain our social connections. For our children, they are dependent on their siblings and their parents. But parents are balancing on a slippery tight rope between work commitments and family obligations. Alexandra’s responsibilities at work rose sharply, creating an entirely new dynamic between her and her family.

“The increasing caseload, with increased risk and some level of fear of bringing the virus home, also meant less time at home to support my daughters and my husband,” Alexandra says. “The days I would be at the clinic, I would be coming home after their bedtime with much lower levels of energy to answer all of the family’s requests, needs, and emotional overwhelm.

“With the absence of childcare, everything has been meshed together, and all the balls are being juggled at the same time. When we are both working from home, we take shifts in minding the girls, the house tasks and work. However, the days I am at the clinic, my husband is parenting by himself, while juggling work and housework. That means there is less time available for focused family time, as different home and work tasks start to pile up and need to be addressed in moments that would previously have been dedicated to meaningful family interaction.

“The stress levels of all of us in the family, despite still reasonable considering the challenges, are definitely higher compared to normal times, and with that, we definitely notice that our patience and tolerance thresholds are overall lower.”

‘A bit chaotic’

It is not just the parents who struggle with the overwhelm and disconnection of these pandemic days, however. “Regularly, I would find my daughters tired, hyper, a bit chaotic, and with low inner space for focusing, after the extra hours of screen time, mindless playing, and lacking meaningful and focused human interactions,” says Alexandra. “The bedtime routine became even more challenging, which would eventually mean fewer sleeping hours, and added difficulties in focusing, both in directed playing or learning activities in the following days.

The first step is to acknowledge the feelings that naturally arise from the pandemic
 

“Eventually, a special bedtime routine of spending hours talking about our days, creating gratitude, mindfulness, and empowering rituals together, until they would finally steam off all their extra chaotic energy from the day, slowly became our special girls’ moment, and a major part of mine and their mental health and selfcare routines throughout the pandemic.”

The boundaries between work and homelife are a significant obstacle for our essential workers. Alexandra mindfully adjusts from psychologist to mom before coming home from the clinic. “When I finally park at home,” she says, “I always take the time to take a few deep breaths for a few seconds, to connect with and remind myself of my love for my daughters, and how much I miss them when I am away. This is the most demanding moment from my daughters. After being stuck at home the whole day, only interacting with each other and their dad, for my daughters I am almost like their connection with the outside world, along with being the novelty in their routine.

“They tend to be very loud and excited, jumping around me, as they cannot yet hug or kiss me until I shower and change. It could be quite overwhelming if I am not in the right mindset and could potentially feel more like a curse rather that a blessing after a tiring day working with people in suffering. However, if I take those extra seconds in the car, connecting with my love for them, when I see all that excitement I can read in between the lines and see that they are asking to be seen, validated, and loved, rather than trying to annoy me.”

Alexandra recognises her own stress levels, overwhelm and tiredness are naturally higher than normal. For this reason she is more aware of her need for conscious selfcare, self-reflection, meditation, and deeply meaningful interactions. To counter the feelings of overwhelm she asks herself, what is the opportunity beneath this challenge?

“Every time we are faced with challenges in life,” she says, “we are pushed to see our lives and the world from different perspectives, in a way, to find solutions for those challenges. The pandemic is a reality for all of us, however, it is also a different challenge for each of us. Our natural response facing a new challenge might be the overwhelming feeling of being stuck, so, it is important to empower ourselves and our family in challenging times.

“The first step is to acknowledge the feelings that naturally arise from the pandemic: being stuck, frustration, loneliness, lack of control. Then it is important to sit with that feeling and normalise it. By validating our feelings, we stop pushing them away and they start moving towards some type of resolution.

“The last step is to bring in self-reflection, which is simply not possible if you are too overwhelmed by the unaddressed feelings. The idea that beneath any challenge there is some kind of opportunity, is healing in itself, and empowers you to be in control of your life and your choices, even when you cannot control the reality around you.”

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