Photo of Jane Hughes

Life in the Time of COVID-19

A personal experience of working and running a DDP Interest Group during the pandemic

DDP Community Reflections

All opinions expressed in the following piece belong to the author(s).

The COVID-19 crisis has brought about so many changes to our lives.

For me, the biggest impact has been the enforced social isolation during lockdown and the very real threat to life. My livelihood disappeared overnight, and the loss of most avenues of social connection impacted on me dramatically. I found myself unable to think, unable to connect, I felt frozen and in a state of psychological collapse.

Like a true psychologist, I turned to theories and models I have used to understand trauma as a way of understanding my own response. Agreed, my trauma was minimal compared to the daily and long term traumas of many families we meet, but I did find three videos in particular helped me frame my experience and lead my out of my own frozen state. These were Deb Dana’s clear explanation of Poly Vagal Theory; Dan Hughes in conversation with Sarah Morse, and Ben Gurney Smith with Dan Hughes discussing the Covid crisis.

Deb Dana describes Poly Vagal Theory simply as the “the Science of Connection”. In brief she explains how our nervous system moves continually in response to the environment determining whether we need to remain in connection or whether we need to enact protection. The three states are driven by three neural pathways – the Ventral Vagal Pathway, the Sympathetic Neural Pathway and the Dorsal Vagal Pathway. Simplified these relate to Connection (ventral vagal), Mobilisation (Sympathetic) and Disconnection (Dorsal Vagal). When we went into lockdown initially all my points of social connection disappeared almost overnight, and the threat of a worldwide invisible killer pushed my nervous system into a state of dorsal vagal collapse. Fortunately this wasn’t permanent, but it did illustrate to me how trauma can result in quite a neurological response which then affects behaviour.

In conversation with Sarah Morse, Dan Hughes said something which really struck home to me – he reminded us that however hard we were finding this as therapists/professionals, the impact on families who were caring for traumatised children would be far greater.  In order that we can be alongside the families we work with we need to find a way to regulate for ourselves, to be with families without our own anxieties being overly present. The effect of social isolation, fear of the virus and the impact on finances are likely to be far reaching for many families, already struggling with developmental traumas.

Ben Gurney Smith expanded on the idea that “WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER” as a way of confirming our intersubjectivity in our therapy, that we are all humans experiencing this global event at the same time. All of us find it strange to be talking to each other, in our homes, via a screen and this can be shared with the families as we engage them in the work.

The basis for me of DDP is the development of therapeutic relationships, using synchronised reciprocal communication. Non-verbal communication in face to face sessions has been the bread and butter of my work as a therapist and I found it impossible to imagine how this could translate to a virtual medium.

However, Ben Gurney Smith in his conversation with Dan Hughes encourages us to think about the use of gesture, tone of voice etc in a more exaggerated way, similar to Peter Fonagy’s idea of “ostensive cueing” which is apparent in parent-infant interactions. This can and does enable a relationship to develop between families and therapist, although all have remarked on how tiring virtual sessions can be and there are some adaptations are need to engage children for any length of time. One therapist advised to expect the unexpected … including the appearance of a parrot!

These three elements have enabled me to return to practice with less trepidation and more interest using video sessions, including the continuation of our DDP Special Interest Group in Devon. Our quarterly meeting had been earmarked for June and initially I felt unsure about how this could work without meeting in person.  However, I was encouraged via our WhatsApp group and the DDP Connects team to continue and hold it via Zoom.

I have to say, seeing those 12 or so boxes of familiar faces made a huge difference to me; we were lucky we had already established relationships between most of us through our working lives and most, but not all of us were known to each other. We talked about the range of different experiences of the impact of lockdown on the families we worked with.

A large majority found lockdown had had a positive impact, with families being together, being able to strengthen their relationships without the interruptions of the outside world. Others described the negative impact however, of loss of work and financial security, the intense pressure of home-schooling and the fact that wider family and social networks were unavailable.

Several practitioners admitted preferring to work virtually via Zoom, as they could adapt their work around their home life. But primarily, the very act of re-connecting with others pulled me out of my “dorsal” state of collapse and helped me begin to mobilise my thinking brain again. We are social beings, right down to our nervous systems.

I feel I am emerging from a very strange moment in our shared history and I am left wondering whether face to face sessions will ever be the norm again.  We will need to find ways to build our social connections not just in person but through virtual means, at least for the time being.

I look forward to our next virtual South West DDP Interest Group, Devon on 25th September.


Publisher: (Sep 2020)

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Article Copyright © , 2020