Pandemic Blues: Lessons from Psychotherapy for Everyday Life
Personal Perspective: How to address burnout by creating developmental space.
Posted January 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
Here we are in this recurring nightmare: Schools open and close with little hope for normalcy. Students, educators, parents, and politicians agonize. No clear path, no clear directives. Record staff absences in Boston, for example, threaten to compromise the school system’s ability to safely operate. In some regions it is the teacher's unions vs. the parents in a fight to keep schools open, in other districts, it is the parents demanding remote learning alternatives. Many caregivers—with the brunt of responsibility still disproportionally falling to women—can't be childcare workers, teachers, and afterschool providers while working full-time jobs from home. This nightmare is not only repeating across the U.S., it’s a worldwide phenomenon.
Today, I write as a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapist who sees individuals, couples, and families in the greater Boston area to offer thoughts on the increasing burnout we are experiencing in this stage of the pandemic. While every therapy is different and everyone deals with issues differently, I want to address a common thread I’m seeing in both my work and my personal life.
2021 was another hard year and 2022 began with little sense of relaxation or rejuvenation. In general, around the holidays, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness in my patients often mix with anticipation and joy. This year, disrupted travel plans kept most of them exhausted before the holidays even began. What I’ve observed is that the powerlessness COVID created has entered a chronic phase and is invading our souls. What I also observe is a communal approach, one that sounds like this: I don't want to talk much about the pandemic. I am sick and tired of it, and I also don't want to come across as a complainer. We all must get through this and if I voice my frustration and despair, it will have a negative ripple effect on others.
One week into 2022 and most people around me, including a good number of my patients, already show signs of burnout. There is little to look forward to, the few freedoms and pleasures that were just coming to life again are shriveling under the impact of the latest Omicron surge. What I’m seeing is a significant “reduction of resilience.” There is less space to relax, to step back with calmness and avoid emotional dysregulation. There is more heaviness, dysphoria, and even depression, and a reduction in optimism, sometimes to outright pessimism. This sentiment was captured by one of my patients who said a few days ago that she thought the whole country is enveloped by a depressive mood.
My patients don't bring up COVID directly, except in passing or if a friend or family member gets it, but on an emotional level, the pandemic is ever-present. A heavy mood, a sense that time has been stolen, and with it, mourning, disbelief it’s been such a long fight, and sometimes an internal rebellion: “enough already.” There is a strong sense of loss.
What is there to do? Focusing on the small joys, practicing mindfulness, exercising, talking to family and friends, pursuing hobbies, all these important strategies are well-covered ground at this point. One technique I use in my psychotherapy sessions that I believe everyone could benefit from is the establishment of what I call a “developmental space,” a concept related to the “holding environment” by psychoanalyst and pediatrician Dr. Donald Winnicott, based on the security created when a parent holds a young child.
For me, a developmental space is one where people can have a sense of safety to explore their thoughts and feelings. Where they can feel existential concerns and worries, push up against their symptoms, or experience a breakdown of communication in relationships. The developmental space I create reassures them that I can listen, comment, interpret, and suggest strategies. During this destabilizing, uncertain time, I find this protected space is particularly important and the best way to help others focus on purpose, hope, and growth. Controlling symptoms, feeling less defensive and more creative, learning about oneself and one’s dreams and patterns, are all an antidote to the malaise we are experiencing. The main point in the therapies is that development is possible even under these present conditions.
I believe anyone can create a developmental space for the people around them. In my work, there are three components that everyone can practice. First is the creation of predictable and special concentrated time, rituals, and boundaries. Second, when holding this space for others, it is important to remember you are listening, not lecturing. It is important to be aware of your own anxiety and triggers that may make you stop listening. Third, when you are suggesting ideas, thoughts, or plans, they should be directly related to what you heard the person say and not a response from a place of defensiveness.
I suggest you try this tri-partite approach that makes up the developmental space: Create a predictable setting for the conversation (it can also happen over Zoom or on the phone), listen with empathy, and experiment with new ideas. There are so many variations on this theme in clinical work and everyday life.
You may read this article and think: Isn’t making it through the day enough? We’re in survival mode here! I understand that sentiment well. There is a paradox: anxiety, stress, and burnout lead to shutting down, a natural reaction, but, unfortunately, the opposite of what’s needed. Just as incorporating movement into your day can help cure tiredness, energy spent focused on connecting with others can combat burnout. Creating developmental space, a form of “interpersonal meditation,” does not need to be a long process, but it should become a regular routine. It could be a few minutes of connection or a longer dialogue. Try to be present in relationships and see what will happen to you and the people you are creating a developmental space for.
When you can do this successfully with children, spouses, friends, coworkers, and other family members, you will see an improvement in mood, optimism, and attachment, and the gloomy feeling recedes and gives way to the emotions of feeling understood and even loved. When you do this with others, it will open the door for you to overcome isolation and feel human. Creating the space where someone can feel safe and like they can grow is replenishing. This isn’t just the work I do as a therapist; this is also the work that I try to do in my personal life, and it is as hard and rewarding as individual mindfulness and meditation.
You may not be able to change the cold darkness we’re experiencing, but you can create for yourself and others a sense of comfort that makes it all tolerable as we continue this pandemic marathon.