By Giulia Leo / Staff Writer
Nicola Petrocchi is a psychology professor and student counselor at John Cabot University, where he teaches both Positive Psychology and Health Psychology. Apart from being a licensed psychotherapist in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), professor Petrocchi is an expert in the field of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). He also runs the Mindfulness and Compassion group meetings at John Cabot University. During our Zoom meeting, Professor Petrocchi and I met on for a virtual tea and a little chat on the psychological effects that COVID-19 had—and is still having—on all of the JCU community.
I know you run the Mindfulness and Compassion meetings at John Cabot. Can you tell me a little about the meetings?
Absolutely! One of the Mindfulness and Compassion meetings actually happened today! So, from 4.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m., students were given the opportunity to join us online and do a little bit of mindfulness and compassion together. We offer both group and individual meetings. The former are held by me, while the latter by Professor Gina Siddu Pilia.
As COVID took over our lives this year, what were the main differences you noticed in the participants?
Of course, a lot has changed about people’s ability to regulate their emotions. We have to keep in mind that, at the very core, we are mammals, and, therefore, have mammalian brains, which are defined by the need of sociality.
During COVID-19, we were not able to connect as before. Although we now have online classes, we are not exchanging any body-based signal nor do we have any physical contact with each other. When all of this starts lacking, the brain experiences more difficulty in feeling a sense of calmness and serenity. As a consequence, many participants of the Mindfulness class reported feeling more anxious and less emotionally regulated. And that is not only because of the big threat represented by the virus, but it is also because we are now unable to connect as before.
Did the number of participants change? Did you find that, with the advent of COVID-19, more people felt the need to talk about their experience and their feelings?
That is a very good question. Unfortunately, I cannot say the number of participants increased. Me and my colleagues were definitely expecting more people to join. When we started wondering about the reasons why that was happening, we came to the conclusion that students were probably overwhelmed by a number of Zoom meetings and online classes and felt like they couldn’t take one more online session. Another thing that adds up to that is the fact that people were used to do our meetings in real life, “in the real world,” so to say. So, when we had to change the format and started having the sessions online, students felt that a certain contact was lacking. COVID, in a way, has also created some sort of “spirals:” We all developed a tendency to retreat and withdraw when it comes to interacting with others. It’s a sort of “the less I connect, the less I want to connect” situation. What we need to do is help our brain and rekindle the social part of it.
Did you find that people struggled with productivity? I personally felt like I was working harder than ever, but, in reality, it was only taking me longer to do the things I used to do in half the time.
What you experienced is very common. First of all, it really depends on one’s personal life situation. It really makes an impact if, for instance, you live with roommates and have the chance to connect with people, or if you live in a safe environment. For instance, the fact of being alone and not being able to socially interact with others, is likely to slowly trigger a sense of low mood and low motivation in most people. This consequently results in a “Oh, I have all this time in front of me, I’ll do whatever I need to do later” mindset. Truth is, seeing others motivates us. Being on their own, people tend to withdraw into themselves and experience a worse capacity to focus and a higher rate of stress and anxiety. Therefore, although being distant is very safe COVID-wise, it can be very emotionally triggering, and that is because we are more dependent on social relationship than we think.
What were your feelings, not as a counselor but as “human being” (meaning as someone who too has worries and is probably scared of this situation), when dealing with the new concerns and problems that students had to face during the pandemic? Was it ever overwhelming for you to constantly be reminded of how hard this situation was (and still is) on people?
Thank you, that’s a vey nice question. I think we counselors feel very honored to be able to access the life of other human beings, at least that is how I personally see it. In my opinion, it depends on how you do this work. If you do it with a compassionate motivation, and not with the idea that you are somehow superior to the other, you realize that there is a sort of “common humanity,” and you too, not as a counselor but as a person, are a part of that communality. That is when you understand that you not only have to be compassionate towards other people, but also to yourself. Once that is clear, things become easier, because you don’t have to show anyone that you are something that you’re not.
New sciences have proved that when you help others with a compassionate motivation instead of a “I need to save the world” motivation, that helps you not only as a therapist but, mostly, as a human being.
In your research, “An online compassion-focused crisis intervention during COVID-19 lockdown: a cases series on patients at high risk for psychosis,” you describe the results of an experiment conducted on six psychotic patients who accessed a 4-week online compassion-focused intervention during the COVID-19 lockdown.
First of all, can you tell us more about it? And, secondly, why do you think the intervention had such a positive impact on all the participants? What do you think is the power of compassion-focused interventions?
I’m glad that you found this paper that me and other researchers wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a way, the virus gave us the opportunity to explore phenomena that one wouldn’t usually explore in “normal” conditions. Paradoxically, it is in such unfortunate situations that researchers are able to understand what kind of psychological variables might help people to thrive or to be resilient in such difficult moments.
So, when we conducted the compassion-focused experiment with this group of clients at risk of psychotic episodes, we realized that, when people are helped and encouraged to keep a compassionate attitude toward themselves and their own suffering, they tend to be more self-regulated.
The reason why we conducted the study is that we were scared that, during the lockdown, those patients would collapse. Therefore, we thought about doing something for them, and we decided to try and help them through compassionate mind training. We were very pleased to notice it had a very positive impacts on the patients. Paradoxically, they stayed more stable during the lockdown than they were before it. In a way, the combination of lockdown and the compassionate mind training resulted in a better relationship with both themselves and the people surrounding them. They were less stressed and, therefore, they were less at risk of having psychotic episodes.
It seems like we cannot exclude the possibility of another lockdow. What are some things we can do to avoid feeling disconnected from the world?
Well, I would say, first of all, I think we should look back on our past experience with the first lockdown and say to ourselves: “somehow I have managed to make it through the first lockdown.” That thought should then be followed by a series of questions, like: “how did I do that? “What did I learn from that experience?” “What was helpful during that time?”
And you don’t have to do anything big or colossal. It could be something as easy as doing yoga for five minutes every morning. To make a personal example, during lockdown, I started handwriting a journal again, and I realized that, before COVID-19 I used forget to write new entries. I have now taken up that habit again, and I am very grateful for it.
Another helpful tip may be trying to interpret the traumas of the lockdown as a way to test and develop our resilience. Therefore, one should, on the one hand, recognize that a new lockdown will inevitably be difficult and, on the other, try to be curious and dive into the research of new ways of dealing with it. Maybe meditation can work or listening to audiobooks or connecting with other people.
My third and last tip is about connection. We, differently from animals, not only connect with other people, but we also connect with ourselves. Animals cannot have an inner dialogue. They cannot talk to themselves. We can. If we become aware of the type of self-talk that we do ourselves, that will make a great difference in the way we deal with things.
A few years ago, we conducted a study in which we found out that if you try to have a better relationship with your inner voice, that will regulate your emotions, your heart and even your immune system.
Do you think that the lack of interaction that we’re experiencing will have a long–term effect on us?
That is a very good question. We’re actually doing a research on the matter at the moment. Together with other colleagues, I am collecting data about the longitudinal effects of COVID not only in Italy, but also in other twelve countries. So, at the moment, I have no precise answers to the question, we’ll have to wait and see how that goes.
In Health Psychologies, we have a concept called post-traumatic growth, according to which we can either grow out of traumatic experience or not learn anything from it and fall into a depressive state. I personally hope this experience will make all of us understand how important human relationships are and how fragile human beings can actually be. We live in a society in which only if we have the latest upgrade we can think of ourselves as empowered and, in a way, omnipotent. But, as this virus takes control of the world, we will hopefully understand the importance and the power of human vulnerability.
How can we reach out and join the mindfulness meetings?
Every Sunday you should receive an email from Student Services with a Zoom link that will take you directly to the meeting. I would also like to add: don’t think that if you come you have to stay for the entire duration of the meeting. The thing is, mindfulness should be something you do for yourself, you should not feel like you have or you are forced to join. If you feel like joining for five minutes, that’s ok. Mindfulness is just a way for us to reconnect with a part of us that is untouched, in a way. Sometimes, we lose the connection with this part and sometimes we get it back, and mindfulness and compassion are just tools that help us regaining that precious connection.
Only when I asked professor Petrocchi my last question, I realized we had been speaking for 30 minutes. We were so caught up in our conversation that time had become irrelevant. When I closed my computer, I was left with feeling of calmness, almost a reassurance about what is yet to be. Professor Petrocchi inspired a sensation of relief in me. As I took a big breath in, I thought of how my personal life mantra perfectly fitted the situation.
“We’ll be alright,” I thought, repeating the words Harry Styles sings in one of my favorite songs, “Fine Line.”