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Interview with Prof. Bogdan de Barbaro, psychiatrist and therapist.

What worries you most about this situation?

Two extremes are worrying: on the one hand, a daredevil who disregards the recommendations of doctors and epidemiologists, and, on the other hand, the attitude of a person destroyed by their own panic. The former is dangerous for the individual and their community, the latter for the individual. Reaction without reflection is dangerous, i.e. actions based solely on the fear of the dangerous and the unknown, is dangerous in and of itself.

What does this look like?

For example, this could be a person spending the whole day in front of the TV, listening to the radio or on the internet, looking for any possible information on the spread of the pandemic and the latest statistics. A daredevil, on the other hand, will not heed warnings, instead exposing themselves and others to danger. I think the first attitude is prevailing right now. You could say that we are being attacked by two dangers: biological and psychological.

What do we fear the most?

I think that the source of deep fear is the fact that we do not know how to effectively and quickly face the threat, we do not know how long the threat will last nor how many victims there will be. Despite reassuring statements from politicians, chaos and the sense that the worst is still to come and that we don’t know what form it is going to take, are the sources of our fears.

People are afraid, but in this case it would probably be correct to assume that this fear makes them behave responsibly?

Looking at what is happening in Poland, for example, at the empty streets, we can come to the conclusion that Poles, compared to the English or Italians earlier, are doing so-so. I think this kind of situation is reflected in Wisława Szymborska’s phrase “We know as much about ourselves as has been tested”.

Are we being tested by the virus?

Yes. The virus is testing how we behave in the face of a completely alien, unknown situation that we are dealing with for the first time. What this situation brings out in us can prove not just important but also a fascinating object of interest for sociologists, politicians or psychotherapists. We will not find out particularly soon what that is, but it’s definitely something important.

Are we more likely to discover that we mainly care about ourselves, or on the contrary, that we can be heroes? Or maybe one doesn’t exclude the other? What does your intuition tell you?

I think that in a while each of us will have the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves.

Some will discover goodness and altruism in themselves, others – existential fear and others will realise how much hubris they were filled with, thinking that “man can do anything”. 

In your office, do you see how this situation - in which there is a high degree of danger yet on the other hand isolation - is affecting patients?

For many patients this is a new and dramatic situation. I am observing a whole range of reactions, from denying how serious the threat is to turning to the supernatural and believing that the apocalypse is coming.

How are people tolerating isolation?

A quarantine in one’s own apartment can cause different things to different people. For some it is a paralysing disaster, but for others it will be the opportunity to catch up on their reading.

The challenge will is staying with your loved ones all the time. In some families this is an opportunity to unite in the face of danger, while in other families, interpersonal tensions will increase. 

The latter situation can be expected where the attitude to a threat is extremely different: a daredevil will be annoyed with a person feeling a deep anxiety, and a person full of anxiety will feel increasing fear towards one who disregards the danger.

The lack of direct contact, touch, sex and reduced activity – how can we survive it?

It is difficult to generalise here but I believe in the universal advice of Marcus Aurelius: “If you see bad things happening around you, find some good action you can take”. It is worth finding where you are empowered, doing something good for yourself or for others. Acting a way that helps you feel you are not passive, powerless or submissive.

Do you think that this is the reason for the large number of new social initiatives and announcements from people who want to help or support others in some way? Is this some kind of intuitive therapeutic activity?

I really like these initiatives. By giving, we take, because doing good can be part of our development. In the psychotherapist community, there are many activities for those who are “on the front line”: we try to support them with, for example, free of charge consultations via Skype. Increasing tension gives rise to a natural solidarity and the will to help.

What else can one do?

It’s worth taking care of your social network, even your online network, although it is far from perfect. Surround yourself with something that is fun, interesting and engaging. For some, that  will be reading poetry, for others it will be a TV series and for others still it will be cleaning up the attic. The point is – do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by fear. If I’m alone in the four walls of my room, I can either wallpaper them with terror or take care of my mind and, without underestimating the threat, take care of my own and other people’s safety, trying to ensure that the things that reach me are wise and good. And if we are isolated as a family, it is worth taking care of the relationships between family members.

It is also worth monitoring how much time we spend every day following the news about coronavirus, and how much time we spend on other things that will allow us to reflect more deeply and help us live through this, avoiding the paralysing fear.

What should we absolutely not do?

Do not underestimate the threat so as not to put yourself and others in danger. And on the other hand, let us not let fear take away our common sense. Because we need that common sense both while planning our daily activities as well as while looking for far-reaching solutions.

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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