This feature by Fragiskos Gonidakis is Part 1 of 2 in a series about the experience of a therapist in Greece during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this first part, Fragiskos explores what happened pre-quarantine.
At the beginning of 2020 the prospect of a pandemic in Greece was like watching a film or tv series. You could relate to it, but only as a viewer of something happening in the Far East. Although the rational mind was aware of the spreading of diseases through air travel and merchant ships, the emotional mind kept repeating that either WHO would do something to stop the spread of COVID-19 – as they have being doing with the Ebola outbreaks – or that the pharmaceutical companies would eventually develop some kind of cure or vaccine. The rational mind kept arguing that a virus that is spreading through droplets of saliva before a person develops any kind of symptom is quite difficult to contain or that the development of a cure would take years if not decades, like what happened with the HIV virus in the 80s. The emotional mind refused to hear any more of this “rubbish.”
In Greece, a person who refuses to see the truth is paralleled to an ostrich that puts its head inside a hole to avoid facing the real danger. So, like ostriches, we had our fair share of conspiracy theorists and people refusing that the COVID-19 pandemic was a reality. We kept doing our job treating our clients. When we got stressed by the news on the pandemic, we buried our own heads in the sand. After a few minutes, everything would be great again.
This kind of denial seemed to worked unit the videos and images from Italy started coming through. No opportunities for the “ostrich strategy” here. Contrary to China or South Korea, Italy is a neighbour country to Greece. The pandemic was real. The emotional mind argued that the Greek government had started taking measures. Although the pandemic was hitting Italy hard, it did not necessarily mean that the same would happen to Greece because…you know….Greece is different…..
Then we had the first positive case in Greece.
And afterwards a whole bunch of cases coming from a group of people returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The emotional mind was still arguing that these cases were imported and that no spread of the disease was observed in Greece yet. And as you already know…well… Greece is not the same as the rest of the world. But the emotional mind was losing ground in the face of the reality.
At the end of the winter 2020 it was obvious that more and more measures regarding isolation would be taken by the government to minimise the spread of the virus. The national health system was upgrading as fast as possible, but unfortunately decades of budget cuts and poor financial management were not going to be cured in a few weeks. So our only option for “survival” was to impose on ourselves what in prison is considered a severe punishment: total isolation from all our family, community and professional environment.
Wise mind started to make plans. What steps would the DBT teams have to take in order to retain their coherency and keep on providing therapy to our clients? On the other hand the emotional mind started panicking: “We are doomed. The apocalypse is coming. The everyday life as we have known it for decades is over!”
The lesson learned during those days was that trying to find your wise mind was an essential quest on a daily basis. You needed to worry in order to be focused on the difficult task lying ahead of you, but also you had to find ways to regulate your worry in order to push you to act instead of melting down, surrendering to emotions of panic and thoughts of hopelessness. You also needed to be optimistic to keep on with the daily routine and all the necessary adjustments that the cumulative governmental measures were requiring. You had to regulate optimism to avoid throwing yourself to delusional denial or fantasies of miraculous therapies.
If you have to stay inside your house for months what do you do if you are a DBT therapist? Read here for part 2 of this blog post, coming soon!
Fragiskos Gonidakis is the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUOA) Medical School. He is currently the Head of the Eating Disorders Unit and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy service of NKUOA’s 1st Psychiatric Department at Eginition Hospital. He has trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Systemic Family Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. His clinical and research interests are focused on Eating Disorders, Transcultural Psychiatry, and Borderline Personality Disorder. He has worked extensively in training and supervising mental health experts in Greece and Europe in CBT for Eating Disorders and DBT for Borderline Personality Disorders. He has developed two distance learning programs on Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorders that are delivered thought the e-learning platform of NKUOA. He is the co-writer of five books in Greek: “Anorexia Nervosa,” “Talking about Eating Disorders,” “Eating Disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Approach,” “Talking about Borderline Personality Disorder, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy,” and “Ten steps for the treatment of Bulimia Nervosa.” He has published in English and Greek more than 80 papers in psychiatric textbooks and scientific journals. He is currently the President of the “Greek Association for Behavioral Research” and Secretary of the Eating Disorders section of the “Greek Psychiatric Association”.