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Anna Marie Pospíšilová: It’s important to be receptive to ourselves, each of us handles stress differently

26. 1. 2023

Do you ever feel overwhelmed? Are you not sure how to deal with stressful situations or feeling lonely? If so this special episode of the De Facto podcast with psychologist Anna Marie Pospíšilová is just for you. The episode was aired in Czech and we bring you the translation here.

Anička, you’re working for FSV UK as a therapist, providing psychological help to both our students and employees. How they can get in touch?

On the website of the Faculty of Social Sciences, there is an option to look up psychological help. Information is given there about the situations in which a therapist can be contacted, and the university reimburses five sessions to all students and employees. You can find an e-mail contact there, so it is possible to contact either me or my colleague Vlaďka Janoušková via e-mail.

Psychological help is also available here at our Faculty for international students. What options do our international students have?

As for psychological help, international students have exactly the same options as Czech students. They can contact me through the website, through my e-mail, which is listed there, and they also have the possibility of five sessions. And as for the follow-up or immediate psychological help, there are also some options for English-speaking students, although they are a bit more limited. For example, in the General University Hospital or in the SOS Centre, there is also English-speaking staff there, so they can contact them as well.

In what situations do students or employees contact you most often?

Currently it’s mostly students who are contacting me and stress is a classic topic. Whether it’s school-related stress, stress related to personal life, it’s a big topic that also includes various anxiety conditions or partner problems.

What advice would you give to people who for some reason don’t want to get help here at FSV UK? Or what else can they do?

Unfortunately, the help I offer is not immediate help. It’s because we have some sort of limited capacity for those sessions, so there are so-called waiting periods, which change during the year. Usually around the summertime, there is a possibility to make an appointment for the same week, but in the more tense periods, for example, the beginning of the school year or examination period, you can expect to wait for three to five weeks. This is to give you an idea about how long it might take to make it to the first session.

At the point where students (or employees) need or want psychological help immediately, I would recommend calling one of the helplines. For students, I guess the first choice is the safety line, which is a service that works 24/7 and it’s free. And then there are crisis centres that either operate 24/7, or they have some sort of daytime hours, basically from morning to evening, and you can show up there without an appointment. It’s like an instant, low-threshold service. For example, there is a crisis centre in Bohnice, the closest one to the Hollar building is the General University Hospital, which also has its crisis centre, or there is also an SOS Centre in Vinohrady.

What effect does the university environment have on mental health? You have mentioned yourself that there’s more demand during the examination period. So how to manage that stressful period or even Christmas now, because although it’s supposed to be a period of peace and joy, I can imagine it to be quite stressful for many of us.

I’ll first answer the question of what effect school has on the human psyche. I’d say it’s very individual. It depends on what kind of personality the students have, what kind of expectations they have of themselves, what kind of expectations their environment puts on them, how they deal with the pressures here, and also what reservoir of coping strategies they have to apply in those more stressful times. And at the same time, most research, whether in Europe or the United States, even here in Czechia, has been carried out on what percentage of university students deal with stress. The number is very high, it’s more than three quarters. So it’s to be expected that in the course of their study, the demands of studying are really going to cause more mental stress and therefore put more demands on students to take care of their mental health.

As for the examination period, naturally it’s a time when there’s more stress, just like Christmas time can be. And what I encounter is that usually students during the exam period change their work or study routine quite dramatically. They study or work most days and often it’s to the detriment of sleep and it turns out that insufficient or poor-quality sleep is one of the main factors that contribute to the decaying mental health of the students and it has a lot of negative effects ranging from a diminished ability to concentrate and remember things, to emotional swings or higher susceptibility to illness. So I would definitely underline the importance of sleep, that it’s really worth it to get a good night sleep and to think about that during those more challenging times. And it’s not just about sleep, it’s about rest in general. Some basic recommendations from me would be not to underestimate the sleep and also to make a study plan, to include in the study plan some kind of active rest, where they just focus on some activity that is not related to studying, ideally not even to the phone or the laptop, which they usually use while studying.

You have mentioned sleep, which, if I’m not mistaken, belongs to the rules of mental hygiene. What else do we find in these rules? Or what else would you recommend?

There is plenty of such recommendations and it’s very individual. What suits me may not suit you, but what also the World Health Organization recommends is definitely some regular active exercise in addition to sleep. It doesn’t have to mean sports. For some people sport just isn’t quite their cup of tea, so for those people I would recommend going for some brisk walks, or instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs or get off one stop early and walk. Physical activity definitely contributes to better mental health. Sport is often talked about as a natural antidepressant, so again, during the examination period, it’s definitely good to include that exercise in there, or just in general as a preventative measure. Apart from sleep, man is a social being and we all need some bonds or social interaction to different degrees. And again it turns out that people who feel alone and don’t really have anybody to talk to are more susceptible to various mental problems, illnesses. So I would say it’s about a basic rule of three. I would maybe add healthy diet in there, because – as widely known – how we eat affects not only our like physical condition, but also how we feel in terms of our emotions and our soul.

Now we are talking about how the students are supposed to handle the examination period, but of course it’s not only the students, but also their teachers, who have a lot on their plate as well. How can teachers, our academics, also manage stress? And then the second part of the question is, how can teachers help their student who they see is struggling with some kind of a psychological problem?

I would say that the recommendations on how to take care of your mental health apply generally. It doesn’t matter if a person is a student, a teacher, a worker. How we take care of that mental health can be sort of copied. At the same time teachers, whether from elementary schools or from higher-level education, work in helping professions – and helping professionals are more prone to some mental health problems. So it’s also about anticipating the fact that it’s a stressful profession, that when it’s too much, it’s good to ask for help, for support.

And in terms of how they could support students when they see that maybe they are not doing well, maybe just with their attention. They can mention that they have noticed something was going on and recommend asking for help, either in the form of psychological counselling or maybe just talking about it. A lot of people are ashamed of their mental health problems or of the fact they can’t handle something and they keep it to themselves. And just starting to talk about it, sharing it, that alone can bring along a lot of relief. So really just encouraging them to share, not to have to go through it all alone.

How to word such a question in this case? Because I can imagine that the sentence “I can see you are having mental health problems” can be quite hurtful to some extent.

For sure, I would recommend saying “I can see something is troubling you” rather than “I can see you’re having mental health problems” because that’s where we’re actually sort of evaluating. We’re evaluating the other person, and that can really take away some trust. Psychology in general is more about describing what we see rather than imagining. Something like – “I can see it is hard for you to engage in the classes right now” or “I can see that compared to how it used to be, maybe you’re not talking as much with your classmates.” One of the factors that show that there’s something going on with our psyche is some kind of change. The fact that maybe we used to be able to handle something and now we can’t. So that can be addressed as well: “I’m noticing that there’s something else going on.” I would recommend the word ‘maybe’ in there – “I can see that maybe something is troubling you.” I think in that way it’s more accepting, offering that help, rather than saying “So something is definitely troubling you, you’re definitely having problems, you need to do something about it.”

How can I find out myself that something is different, perhaps wrong, or that I need professional help? Or, to what stage can I manage such situations on my own at home? And at what stage after that should I ideally reach out for help?

There’s no clear-cut, unambiguous recommendation or a clear-cut formula that would simply reveal whether it’s already time for psychological help or not yet. It’s very subjective and individual and I’ve mentioned before that it depends a lot on how resilient a person is to stress. The examination period starts to be unmanageable for a certain student, who starts to break down, while for another student who is facing the same examination period, it can be okay, with no psychological pressure. The main thing is to be so-called receptive, sensitive to oneself. One of the clues that can help to judge whether it’s okay to ask for psychological help is that subjectively the person perceives that they are not coping anymore, that it’s too much for them and that some of the coping strategies that normally work for them suddenly stop working and the support from the environment doesn’t work either, or there is no support at all. That I would say is kind of the main clue. I’m getting overwhelmed and I don’t even have anyone to talk to about it.

What I can see in my surroundings (which I hope is slowly fading), that sometimes a person a little bit brags about how busy they are, or that they don’t get enough sleep, or that they haven’t even eaten, or how busy they are. Maybe the upcoming generation isn’t like that anymore?

One of the topics – and I didn’t mention it at the beginning when you asked me what issues students approach me with, but one of the topics that come up a lot is a sense of some sort of inadequacy, that I’m not handling as much as my surroundings are or as much as my peers are handling. And I’ve noticed that it’s not at all unusual for students to work while they’re studying. Having one job is almost seen as not enough, so they are supposed to have two jobs and spend as much time as possible working and studying and then maybe relaxing as a reward. I don’t know to what extent it’s bragging about how much people can handle, but more as if it was some sort of norm that you’re expected to handle a lot, which then for some individuals can exactly cause that feeling that they’re not enough, they have to try much harder and then they’re much more prone to various difficulties because they don’t respect their own capacity, their own sensitivity to that heavy load.

What is the difference between psychological and psychiatric care? In what situations should I seek a psychologist and in what situations should I seek a psychiatrist?

The basic difference is that psychologists, simply put, can’t prescribe medication, because they’re not doctors. A psychiatrist can prescribe drugs, not only a psychiatrist – drugs that somehow affect our psychological functioning can be prescribed to a limited extent by a general practitioner as well. As for deciding whether to go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, I would probably recommend that in most cases it is better to go to a psychologist.

The cases where psychiatric help is the first choice are mainly situations where the person is either a threat to their own health or life or is somehow a threat to those around them – that’s where psychiatric help is definitely advisable. Psychiatric help is also generally recommended when a person is not capable of working on some changes in their functioning in life, because perhaps the psyche is so weakened that they simply don’t have the strength to do so, so at such a moment it is also recommended, or it usually happens that psychiatric and psychological help are combined. Going to a psychologist can also be good because the psychologist is trained to recognize if it’s good to seek psychiatric help and if so, they usually have contacts, so that saves some searching and thinking about who exactly to contact.

How can I take preventive care of my health even when I feel completely 100% happy, satisfied, fulfilled, and have no problems?

That’s a very nice question because we usually engage in the so-called firefighting maneuvering when there are already some problems, and yet it is true across the whole health system that prevention is much more important, that is to prevent the fire from happening in the first place. And when else to start than when I feel fine and nothing is troubling me. The thing about prevention is that it should be regular and over a long-term period, it shouldn’t be like a spur-of-the-moment thing “yeah, I’m going to go to the sauna” or “I’m going to go for a run with my friend now”, but it should be really a solid part of my everyday life. Just when I put down in my diary when I have exams, when I have classes or some business meetings, it’s ok to put down with some regularity my hobbies, activities that I know recharge my batteries, that I get my energy from. And it’s different for everybody. So again, I would go back to the fact that some physical activity should be there – a lot of people are doing yoga now, which I think is good, because in yoga there’s also a space to turn your attention inward for a moment, to take a moment to yourself, not just the outside environment.