COVID-19 one year on: Some existential reflections

Professor Isabel Henton, Programme Director (DPsych) and Director of People at Regent’s, offers some existential reflections on the experience of the pandemic one year on. This article is part of our Regent's Review series: thoughts, research and academic discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Around this time last year, I wrote a piece for Regent’s Review series in response to the unfolding pandemic, exploring the place of the crisis in psychological theorising. 

At the time, my counselling psychology colleagues and I felt like we were steering through choppy and uncertain waters – changing advice from statutory and professional bodies, unfamiliar techno-landscapes and the loss of our usual embodied ways of training and practicing. Instead of working with others face-to-face, we were suddenly cut off, flat, in two dimensions. 

We were also experiencing the impact, in class and in therapy, of a crisis affecting all of us  – a significant change to the intersubjective dynamics of training and practice. 

Decision-making in a crisis

The word ‘crisis’ is linked, etymologically, to decision-making. It implies a pivot point, a critical incident that brings things to a head, a demand for change. In the context of relationships, it might be the moment we decide to stay, to go, to move towards other people, or to turn away. 

If there was ever a chance to disrupt the fantasy of ‘the right decision’ – of a singular, true interpretation of the data at hand – the pandemic has surely been a great disruptor of the grandeur of positive science. The sheer volume and multiplicity in the data of the pandemic has generated an impossible, undecidable and so decidedly postmodern situation, in which, nevertheless, decisions must continue to be made.

Decision-making is central to the way we think about 'doctorality' on DPsych (Regent’s Doctorate in Counselling Psychology) – a doctoral level training that supports practitioners to make decisions – for instance, decisions about how to respond to clients in complex circumstances, or decisions in the context of leadership within multidisciplinary health-providing organisations. 

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education (2018) similarly highlights the link between doctorality and the skills transferable to employability – holders of doctoral qualifications must be able to ‘make informed judgements on complex issues, often in the absence of complete data’ and should ‘exercise personal responsibility and largely autonomous initiative in complex and unpredictable situations.’ Sound familiar?

Clearly we all have these skills, and many opportunities throughout our lives to develop them, however, in a doctoral degree, these are formally rehearsed at the viva voce, in which the candidate is questioned, live and in depth (and, at the moment, on camera) about decision-making in the context of their research project, which is seen as a form of social action aiming ultimately to help others:

  • Was it you who made those decisions? 
  • Why did you make them? 
  • What were the consequences? 
  • Could you have decided differently? 
  • Who have you helped, and how have you helped?
  • What difference has your work made? 

Tunnel vision

Turning back to the pandemic, what has been the impact, a year on, of the tidal wave of our decision-making? Talking to some of our trainee counselling psychologists in recent weeks, the answer comes: it’s been tough. We are tired.  

The lived experience of training to be a psychologist is tough, and tiring, anyway… a rolling landscape of placements, assignments, research and undertaking one's own course of psychotherapy. As in a long train journey, there often seems to be no time to stop or to get off the train (Henton, 2016). With the added layer of the pandemic, our trainees have had to make radical shifts at home, in class and in their practice, with little time to digest the impact, because the journey must go on.

Tunnel vision, to continue the transport metaphor, refers to the loss of peripheral vision in ophthalmology and, in cognitive psychology, to a cognitive bias, or difficulty with generating alternative perspectives – like a kind of psychological myopia. How apt as a phenomenology of screen life – humdrum, fewer changes of scene, no daily commute, no corridor, no periphery… no other places

Tunnel vision is likely to have an evolutionary psychological purpose – short-cutting more elaborate decision-making when we are in a crisis or in danger, sharpening our focus so that we can respond immediately. However, under the more prolonged tunnel-vision conditions of the pandemic, we may have become anxious, or sad, or both, at times – in modern lives, these feelings often correlate with cognitive biases like tunnel vision (Beck & Greenberg, 1974). 

Our minds get stuck, like being stuck to a screen, our thoughts are unable to move or shift away – this can generate a cycle of emotions  and embodied responses. Physically, we end the day, after perhaps many consecutive screen meetings, feeling as if we’ve just walked off a long-haul flight (Markowitz et al., 2020).

DPsych trainees have spoken about the idea of tunnel vision  when reflecting on their recent experiences of receiving feedback on their clinical practice. This biannual feedback from placements, staff and clinical supervisors can be challenging at the best of times – especially as there is often an intersection between the personal and professional. They’ve told us it’s been harder at times to receive this feedback under the conditions of tunnel vision during the pandemic – harder to experience it as supportive or to move away from dwelling on it in their minds.

Café culture

It can harder to be creative under tunnel vision conditions, too. In her book At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (2016), Sarah Bakewell reminds us that many a creative idea has been dreamed up in a café – the mind wandering unbounded, over a coffee, or possibly something a little stronger, as the title suggests.

Kurt Lewin, for instance, invented field research sitting in a café – observing the ebb and flow in the energy of his waiter, the psychic tension apparently released upon serving up a hot plate of food to the hungry diners at the table. 

And it was in a café that Jean-Paul Sartre famously realised, while shrinking in horror from being looked at by other café-goers, that ‘hell is other people’ – ‘l’enfer, c’est les autres’ (Sartre, 1944). At least he could exit the café and go home, where he could be alone, no longer having to imagine how he looked under the gaze of other people. No video calls  back in the 1940s and I feel glad for Sartre – that really might have been hell for him, how would he have managed?! 

So, we’re looking forward to returning to the café – to fewer tough decisions, to regaining our peripheral vision, to the mind wandering and perhaps to one or two cocktails. In the meantime, we can only get so far.

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References

  • Bakewell, Sarah. (2016). At the existentialist café: Freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Other Press, LLC.
  • Beck, A. T., & Greenberg, R. L. (1974). Coping with depression. Center for Cognitive Therapy, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Henton, I. (2016). Engaging with research. In B. Douglas et al. Handbook of counselling psychology, pp. 132-148. 
  • Quality Assurance Agency. (2018). The UK Quality Code for Higher Education. Retrieved on 16 April from: www.qaa.ac.uk/quality-code.
  • Markowitz, J. C., Milrod, B., Heckman, T. G., Bergman, M., Amsalem, D., Zalman, H., ... & Neria, Y. (2020). Psychotherapy at a distance. American Journal of Psychiatry, appi-ajp.
  • Sartre, J. P., & Camus, A. (1944/2015). No exit and three other plays. Vintage.
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