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Managing emotions amongst new COVID-19 rules: Interview for Times Radio

Interview with Prof. Wulf Rössler, MD; MSc.

02.10.2020 - Interviews, Mental health

Professor Wulf Rössler recently made another appearance on The Times Radio with host Phil Williams to discuss emotions and coping strategies for those in the UK, amongst a new level of restrictions being imposed. He was also joined by Wendy Gregory, a counselling psychologist who also teaches CBT therapy, and psychologist, Laverne Antrobus.

Five past nine Tuesday evening here, through till 10 live from Manchester and between nine and half past each weeknight, you know, we like to use the airtime, to dig behind some of the headlines and some of the stories that are making the news. And obviously today, with the heightened restrictions put in place across the UK. by various political leaders and the sunshine disappearing both meteorologically and metaphorically, increased COVID-19 restrictions, job losses, the prospect of perhaps not seeing your family at Christmas if the rule of six continues through to December 25th, we wanted to assemble some fine minds in mental health to offer you some assistance and maybe some guidance as to how you can increase your robustness mentally and how you might get through the rest of September, October, November. With the clocks going back, the weather getting worse, flu appearing on the scene, as well as the constant threat of COVID-19. So that’s what we’ve done tonight.

And I’ll introduce you to our experts right now. We have returning to the programme Professor Wulf Rössler, professor of clinical psychiatry, who has been on the programme before, and he, of course, joins us from the Kusnacht Practice World renowned Clinic, author of over 100 books. He’s welcome back, Wulf. How are you?

Wulf Rössler: Hello. Thank you. I’m fine.

Thank you very much for doing this for us. Appreciate you coming back on the programme. Alongside Wulf, we have Laverne Antrobus, who’s a psychologist. Evening, Laverne.

Laverne Antrobus: Good evening.

And Wendy Gregory, we’ll talk to you as well. Wendy is a counselling psychologist who does CBT courses and also a writer. Evening, Wendy.

Wendy Gregory: Hi.

Wulf, let me start with you because there’s a number of areas I want to touch on. One is anxiety. One is catastrophizing. But if we talk about external factors, first of all, I mentioned some of them in the introduction there. We’ve got heightened restrictions of people’s freedoms because of COVID-19. We’ve got darker nights and shorter days coming in this country. We’ve had job losses announced today again, and we think we’ll get more of those as the weeks progress and the prospect of not seeing families at Christmas, all of these external things, many of them out of our control, but most of them impacting on our mental health. So what do we do about that? What can we control to try to prevent a slide in the mental health.

WR: You’re right, Phil. I mean, the prospects are not so good. I mean, when we’re thinking what we can do, I mean, we, there’s not one advice which fits for all. You know, it depends very much how COVID-19 has impacted on you till now. Socially and Security. Did you lose your job, or are you feeling something like survivor guilt as someone from your family died? You know, these are all circumstances that vary across families, across people and populations. So not one fit for all. But in general, we can say what it is about is what we have to guarantee. Also, if things become difficult, is something what we call self-determination. Self-determination is something having a say for your life. How can we do that?

I mean, for one thing, is what we need is trust in our government. And honestly, I was surprised to hear that all these restrictions and rules which were introduced now should last for a half year. I’m not aware of any of the experts who could make a good prognosis for half a year about how COVID-19 develops. So that surprises me that you can make such a firm prognosis. But after all, I mean, if I look at the number of deaths like in the UK compared to the country I live in, in Switzerland, we have if I extrapolate this to the number of people living in the UK, we have about sixteen thousand deaths during the last year and the UK is something like 42000 deaths. So the management of the corona crisis was not the best. And so it, I assume, that the trust in the government is not the highest you could achieve.

But these are factors we cannot influence. And what we can influence is when we go back to ourselves. And what I said in the introduction, it’s about self-determination, and self-determination really are things like ‘what can I do’? I was running an emergency service for many years. And I must tell you, I would say about 80 per cent of the clients I was seeing in this emergency service, I could say this crisis is also a chance for you. You know, a crisis also offers a chance and even COVID-19, if it doesn’t look like it offers chances to us, for example, to make the upcoming time something like a personal project. Oh, it’s what I for sure can say what the reaction should not be. Don’t drink more alcohol, don’t smoke more cigarettes or whatever. And this is the disease. And most don’t develop to be a couch potato. I mean, physical exercise. What we know, nutrition is very important for mental health. And this is the personal project for the next half year. I would recommend. Eat well, do physical exercises and don’t drink too much alcohol.

That’s really interesting. It’s an interesting way of flipping the situation. Is disease to treat as “Okay, I’ve got a chance to maybe make some self-improvement”. Laverne Antrobus, let me get you to follow up on that. Laverne’s a psychologist. When we get to September of 2020, and it’s already been a really difficult year, how easy is it to summon the motivation to do what Professor Rössler is recommending?

LA: Well, I think that you know, in our DNA, you know, we are resilient people. COVID-19 has come along, and it’s something completely new to us. But we have been through one, shall I say, wave of this. I don’t know if that’s how it’s been defined, but we’ve been through one sort of trance of this. And actually, I think what the professor is saying is quite right. We have had a chance to learn something. And for me, I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking, well, you know, I can’t you know, I’m feeling upset, or I feel depressed, and that’s not okay. I think you have to sort of mark those feelings and know that actually in these times, some of those feelings are probably the right feelings to be having. But what I would say following up on what’s just been said is that we do need to look for the quick wins.

I think each of us in our own ways are having to face new challenges. And the things that we’ve learnt during the last six months that helped us so, you know, not drinking too much, not smoking too much. I take it further to say where are the human contacts that really made things possible? You know, people who are still going to work. Can you make a plan to make sure that in going to work you have some contact with somebody else, you have a chat with them? You know, friends have probably become more important than ever. Make sure you utilize those things that are around for you so that you can have these chats on the phone. So I think this is a moment to really pause and think, what have I learned about myself over the last few months that’s really helped me pull through. They’re probably going to be very, very small things, but small things are quick and big wins.

So, I think, you know, it’s a bit like going to work. You know, you’ve got a rotor, you go one day a week, check who else is going to be there, make a time to have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee with them, you know, turn it into something that gives you a bit of nourishment. So I’m really with what the professor says. I think there are some moments in the next few months to really work on ourselves, but to really build our resilience, and think “What have I learnt about myself in the last few months that I need to keep going, need to call my parents, need to call grandparents”, you know, what’s helping to sort of nurture and nourish one another?

Wendy Gregory is our third guest for you this evening in this mental health clinic that we’re running for you on Time’s radio, and Wendy is a counselling psychologist and writer. And when you’re seeing your patients, Wendy, what kind of tools are you able to give them that allows them to find what Laverne has just described as those quick wins?

WG: Yes. I mean, it’s all very interesting. And I would agree with everything that’s been said so far. And I mean, I’d like to say that since the easing of lockdown, I’ve had a little bit of a tsunami of patients or I call them clients. I prefer to call them clients. You know, I had sort of nothing for three months and then all of a sudden and I think a lot of people are making assumptions about people’s mental health, that lockdown has somehow, and the whole COVID-19 situation has caused mental health issues. And sometimes, of course, it has. But what I would say what I’ve seen more of is people who have existing problems in their lives locked down and COVID-19 has exacerbated them. So I am seeing a wave of people with severe anxiety, for example, and they were probably anxious before. But this has made things worse, or there were things wrong in their lives. So they’ve become very, very focused on that. So what would I suggest to people?

I mean, I agree that I think the government are catastrophizing massively. And that’s something that I often talk to clients about and point out to them that they are catastrophizing by focusing on the worst possible outcome when we’re not helping ourselves in any way. And so it’s about thinking, well, maybe the worst will happen, but if it does, I’ll deal with it. As Laverne said, people are resilient. We’ve come through it all that we’ve come through so far. So if I’ve dealt with this so far, I will continue to be able to do that. And also, I was thinking about this just before the show and there’s two kind of sides to this lack of control, because the professor was talking about lack of control and in some ways, knowing that you can’t control something can almost be liberating. So if there’s nothing you can do about something, there’s really no point in stressing about it and getting very anxious about it. And because we can’t, we have no influence individually on what the government decides to do or not do. So that’s a sort of positive. But if you turn that around and human beings really do need to feel and believe that they have control over their lives in some ways, and when people feel powerless, powerless is very heavily linked with depression.

If you take power away from an animal, for example, from a dog, so you don’t have any control over eating and you’re shut it in a cage and whatever, the dog actually becomes depressed. And humans are, you know, not that different. We’re all mammals. So we need to feel that we do have some control. And as Laverne was saying, we do you know, we can still, we do still have control over our everyday life, and we are goal-driven, human beings are goal-driven. So what I suggest to people is that every day you build something into your life that you enjoy that’s going to give you pleasure. However small that is, whether it’s watching a favourite TV programme or doing a yoga class or listening to a podcast or whatever it is talking to family and that also, before you go to bed, if possible, write a little plan for what you’re going to do the next day. You know what’s going to be positive the next day? What are you going to do? What have we got to look forward to say? Do wake up with something positive in mind.

Yeah, go on. Go on.

WG: Also, you know, just trusting that you will get through it. It is at the moment it’s a problem, and it’s one day at a time in an insane way because the rules change every blooming’ day. So also, it seems so we can’t do anything about it. And as we’ve already said but trusting that what if the worst comes. I mean this awful sort of, you know, Christmas ‘oh I won’t be able to see anybody’. And I remember at the very start of lockdown when it was announced, I personally had a complete meltdown that night and spent the whole night crying because I imagined I catastrophised, I imagined “I will never see my loved ones again”.

You know, I really went down that dark hole. I did come out of it. But try not to focus on that because nobody knows what’s going to happen before Christmas. And I’m really optimistic and hoping it’s not going to be that bad. So, don’t focus on that worst possible outcome. But if that does happen, you’ll deal with it. You know, just trusting yourself that you deal with it, you’ll get through that. And, you know, the old of Negro spiritual, if this, too, shall end and it will at some point, we I’m not saying the virus will end, but we’ll deal with it, or we’ll live with it or whatever. And the difficulties that we’re experiencing now will end at some point or improve at least.

And the reassuring thing, I think one of the reassuring things I just took from what you said, Wendy, is that even those who are trained in this can still have meltdowns, as you have to self-described. And I think, you know, that it just shows goes to show me where we’re at with all of that as well.

Just more in a moment with Wendy Gregory and Laverne Antrobus and Professor Wulf Rössler. And if you have a question that you’d like to put to any of our experts about how you’re feeling at the moment and about how you might process those feelings and how you might try and retain some positivity through the next few months. Eight seven triple-two to start your text with the word “times” or at Phil Williams at Times Radio. And I’ve got a very, very nice story coming up in a few moments or so for you as well about a wedding that is going ahead this weekend. So let’s talk about that after break.

Our mental health clinic remains open for another 10 minutes that we’ve opened in the light of extended COVID-19 restrictions announced today across the UK. Professor Wulf Rössler is with us, professor of clinical psychiatry at the Kusnacht Practice writer of over 100 books. Can I ask you, Professor Rössler, specifically about some emotions that I think most of us will have experienced here to do with this situation and how you advise we process those emotions, anger being one of them, sadness being another, helplessness being the third. I’ll leave it at those three for now. But I think a lot of people have experienced one of those three in the last six to eight months. How do you deal with those and make sure they don’t overtake us?

WR: Yeah, well, I mean,  these are basic emotions, you know. I mean, there is nothing special about it. We all know what anger is. We all know what sadness is. And what else did you say? Anxious or helplessness? Helplessness, you know, but it’s almost, it’s all the time about the extent of the emotions. It’s not if you have these emotions, but the extent and how long they last. So I mean, we know how to deal with emotions like this. We know how to reduce anger, you know, like take a breath, you know, stop yelling at other people, don’t be irritated and things like that. You know, the thing is that all these emotions come up most likely in familiar situations, in families where the barriers are showing emotions are quite lowered.

I mean, this is one of the reasons why so many people after Christmas decide to get divorced, because, I mean, Christmas can be a real stress, emotional stress for everybody. You know, if you sit together for several days, something like this. And by the way, what I said in the beginning, everything is a challenge, you know, and if you cannot celebrate Christmas with all your family members, maybe there is less fighting among the family members, etc. you know, there’s always something positive you can get out of it. And I think that’s what you really have to consider when you feel these emotions. And there’s maybe just to pick up the one helplessness and it was said before, helplessness is a feeling which we use as a model for the onset of depression, learned helplessness. Whatever you do, it comes out negatively. You know, this is something where you really have to be careful and always what has been said previously: Be your own master, try to look for your self-determination, your autonomy, you know, your competence, your skills, you know, and this is the best way to control all different kinds of emotions.

Hmm. Yeah, very, very good advice. Laverne Antrobus, Wendy has spoken and Wulf was speaking there about something that was described to me by a psychiatrist as “monkey minding” where, you know, we don’t necessarily know do is a fact that we can’t yet see our families at Christmas. And yet already that’s the thing that people are saying. That’s what’s first and centre of their minds.

LA: I think that’s right. And I think it’s you know, something becomes quite contagious, doesn’t it? You know, in the narrative that you hear something and before you know it, it’s become something quite big, which is why I do think that, you know, the sort of way we’re all speaking tonight is saying, you know, take some charge for yourself. There are some things, of course, that really are going to make the next few weeks and months difficult economic uncertainty, you know, a sort of not knowing about your own sort of personal circumstances.

But there are these things that you can know. You do know what makes you feel better about yourself if that’s linking up with other people, as I’ve said, because I think that, you know, for me, you know, my experience of talking to patients or talking to friends is that it’s about connecting up with each other that feels so remote when we hear these new rules coming in. And actually, there are still ways of doing that. We’ve all found ways of doing that be, you know, being on video call, using our telephones much more. And I think this is an opportunity and this is not to sort of bypass the sort of fear factor of will we make it to Christmas to be together? But actually we learn new ways of being together.

You know, maybe Christmas will happen in a very different way and we’ll have to come together in different ways that will actually pave the way forward for something that’s far more pleasurable. And that’s not to sort of try and just make it feel better. But I do think, you know, work settings are all looking very carefully at how they can cost the people. So that we get the best sort of work experience together and actually I think that is the key. What can you be in charge of that makes you feel better, even if it’s for a very small moment? Because, you know, that’s what I’m thinking is the way forward at the moment, you know, these very small, quick wins that give us a sense that actually we can stay hopeful.

Wendy, give us one tip from you that along similar lines about approaching the next few months, the key piece of advice for people.

WG: Key piece of advice is count your blessings. And I don’t mean to sound facetious. And at the end of each day before you go to bed, think of if you can think of three good things or positive things that happened that day. If you can’t think of three, just think of one night the sun was shining today or I went for a nice walk or I spoke to a friend, but just tried to focus on what has happened in your day that has been positive.

Thank you all very much for your expertise and for your time tonight. I’m very grateful to all of you Wendy Gregory, counselling psychologist and writer, Laverne Antrobus, psychologist and Professor Wulf Rössler, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Kusnacht Practice, writer of over 100 books.