The Corona pandemic not only threatens physical health, but also leads to an increase in psychological strain. A study by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences suggests that students’ well-being has also declined since the pandemic outbreak.
AULANews spoke with psychological psychotherapist Peter Stimpfle about the changes students suffer from in particular and what helps to combat mental stress.
Stimpfle has been running a psychotherapy practice in the Bavarian town of Eichstätt in Germany since 2005.
AulaNews: How does the pandemic and the protective measures entailing affect people’s psyche?
Stimpfle: The pandemic naturally causes fundamental uncertainty because it makes the future more uncertain. The future is always uncertain, life is uncertain. You never know what’s coming, but before the pandemic it seemed more predictable. You knew: Tomorrow I’ll go to work. I can go shopping where I want, I can go on vacation. All these certainties have more or less disappeared from one day to the other.
In other words, everything from which we draw something like psychological stability is suddenly endangered to a massive extent. You can no longer rely on these routines. Men are suddenly in the home office, children are at home. Otherwise, fathers might have only been confronted with the child-rearing situation in the evenings, but now they are all day long. Jobs are threatened, health, lives. People are concerned with questions like «Am I getting infected, am I not getting infected?»
Another point is that something essential is lost because of the restrictions on contact that are necessary because of hygiene measures. We are herd animals: We need community. And meeting this need in a different way is difficult at this stage.
AulaNews: Is it just a matter of changing our familiar routines, or do people really need social contacts to this extent?
Stimpfle: Humans have basic needs, I always name these four, which are pairs of opposites: belonging and individuality, security and adventure. The former is about everyone needing a herd, but at the same time everyone has their own needs and perspectives.
We also need security and habit, but at the same time we need adventure, excitement, tension and rebellion. And between these needs we stagger the whole life. If the general conditions change, as they have now in the pandemic, the basic needs are still there. And now we have to find other ways of organizing our own needs. That requires a certain flexibility.
AulaNews: What diseases are occurring?
Stimpfle: In the context of the pandemic, mental stress is increasing considerably, and we are also noticing a much greater rush of registrations for therapy. Various disorders are on the rise. For example, people are preoccupied with fears, such as fears about the future, fears about illness, fears about their professional and private future.
Panic also plays a role: «How do I get everything organized at home?». Other disorders are loneliness, depression and feelings of powerlessness. This sometimes evolves into the psychosomatic area: high blood pressure, tinnitus, etc. occur. Overall, no matter which category, there is an increase.
AulaNews: Which ones are increasing and which ones are just emerging?
Stimpfle: So it is often the case that there is a prior strain and now it is as if you are really adding fuel to the fire. This pre-existing stress was perhaps burning on a rather small flame, which could still be extinguished, but this now ensures an exponential growth.
These flames, that is, the wounds that one carries within oneself from one’s life history, now become much more present.
Everybody knows that, that one has already experienced in kindergarten that one has been excluded. Now it is the case that one person wears a mask, the other doesn’t, the third wears it under his nose, the fourth refuses. There are different points of view on which the community breaks. It even goes so far that extreme viewpoints lead to the division of society.
That, of course, also isolates people. A woman told me that she is insecure when she goes out the door. She wonders what to expect. Will the neighbor come without a mask? What attitude does he have and how should she deal with it?
In the past, such things were not an issue at all. But if I now also have a previous experience, usually also from childhood, in which I felt similarly powerless, then such moments can act like a powerful blow to an old wound.
Not everything can go smoothly in childhood, that’s quite normal. But now, when basic emotional experiences from childhood are compounded, it knocks someone out. This can be experiences of exclusion, violence, poor future prospects and traumatic experiences such as abuse or a lack of support from parents. The pandemic rubs salt to these wounds.
AulaNews: Do students experience the situation differently?
Stimpfle: We notice that students are registering more frequently. One special feature is certainly that the usual student life cannot take place at all. For example, there is no daily structure. Normally, you go to lectures at the university, or you don’t, and then you meet your friends and talk to them. You have contacts, you have your herd. Right now, that’s more difficult to organize and is possibly also connected with feelings of guilt. For example, when you meet and unknowingly infect someone.
Some people go home to their parents, the universities are all empty. It is good that we have these technical means, but of course they are only an alternative solution. Computer learning can be very monotonous and lead to visual overload. This is then accompanied by headaches, tension and a lack of movement.
In addition, students now have to deal with completely new questions: What about exams in this situation? What about my studies? Where do I do my internships?
Some students may also have greater problems detaching themselves from their parents during the pandemic.
AulaNews: Do students have special benefits that strengthen their mental health?
Stimpfle: I would say there are some specifics that students may benefit from as well. Some take longer trips to see their parents. Some take advantage of the silence in the libraries, which are emptier than ever. There’s more flexibility in teaching. Also, you have the opportunity to reevaluate interpersonal relations. You see who shares your views and who doesn’t. That can strengthen relationships, too.
AulaNews: What advice do you give to people who are severely burdened by the current situation?
Stimpfle: I advise them to take small steps. One of my patients is bogged down in depression. She has great fears of driving, which have now become even worse, and she is also being urged to drive from the outside. As a result, she doesn’t dare to leave the house at all. I told her: Start with small steps. Here’s what you do every day now: You open the garage door and drive the car out and back in. You can do that. You walk in the yard once every day for at least 10 minutes, then around the house, then around the neighborhood.
Keeping in touch is another step, whether it’s through messenger services, video calls or meetings with distance and mask. Light exercise can also help, laughing or varying the usual a bit. A daily structure is also elementary; for example, you should plan to end your home office at five.
AulaNews: Is it possible to prevent the bad mood?
Stimpfle: In the therapies, I increasingly hear that people feel like machines. It is disastrous when you laugh at everything and keep all your feelings to yourself. Suppressing your feelings doesn’t do any good, leads to alcohol consumption, internal pressure and psychosomatic complaints. And that is why I advise patients: Find a form that suits you, how to express your feelings in a limited way. For example, you can clean angrily and imagine you are wiping away the pandemic with window cleaning spray to articulate your displeasure with the situation. Writing it down can also work.
Another option is to get upset together. A mother went out on the balcony with her daughter who was annoyed with the situation and the child yelled «Fucking Corona» from the balcony. I would definitely advise more of that! However, it is also important to express these feelings in a limited time, of course without harming anyone.
In addition, one should make cuts in one’s expectations and then perhaps also be satisfied with the fifth-best solution. The rigidity lies in the fact that one has the expectation, everything must be as it was in the past. But that is even more frustrating. The fifth-best solution may not be the one you want, but it’s better than none.
AulaNews: What can outsiders do to support?
Stimpfle: Maybe we will learn the value of conversation. A first step is to ask people how they are doing. I would always choose I-messages: «My impression is that you’re not doing so well…»