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HEALTH | 07.13.2020

Laura Rojas-Marcos: “For some, the pandemic has been an opportunity for personal and even professional growth”

Marta Villalba

Marta Villalba

Laura Rojas-Marcos (1970), a New Yorker and noted psychologist who has lived in Madrid since 2002, has, like many others, experienced moments of sadness as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Although she is far from her father, the eminent psychologist Luis Rojas-Marcos who lives in New York, these trying times have also brought her closer to her loved ones, as she shares her feelings, experiences and ideas with them. This communication has helped her to avoid feeling lonely, and this is one of her tips for coping with problems: “You don’t need many people, but you do need good people. If we can each identify who we’re close to, the people I like to call my living treasures, this will be an endless comfort to the soul.”

A doctor of clinical psychology, her consultations have shown her a wide array of emotional responses to the pandemic, particularly patients suffering from fear, stress, uncertainty, anxiety and insecurity. And she says that “all of these responses are normal, that is to say consistent with the situation,” and with this unprecedented state of stress that “is affecting not only external relationships, i.e. with family members or colleagues, but also the relationships we have with ourselves.” Regardless of exactly how traumatic it has been on an individual level, the psychologist is clear about the fact that the pandemic is having an effect on our perceptions of life, independence, freedom and relationships, and it has demanded that all of us, on grounds of safety and social responsibility, change our habits and routines, and that, she points out, is always stressful.

For Laura Rojas-Marcos, the most important thing for returning to normality is putting into practice the safety measures that we’ve learned, out of which “we’ve already made habits, which are even automatic, when you go out, you automatically pick up your mask, when you come in, you wash your hands, you carry your hand gel…” Always following these guidelines also makes it easier to meet back up with family and friends and to be aware that this is temporary, that life will not be this way forever. “This is not the first ever pandemic, we are lucky that it’s not a war and there hasn’t been a shortage of basic necessities. We’ve had access to electricity, drinking water, food and medicine. We must not lose sight of this.”

Overcoming the fear of leaving the house, death, or loss of income

Those who feel fearful at the prospect of leaving the house because they may become infected are advised to adapt by taking small steps. “The way to manage fear is to face it, to connect with the courage and bravery inside us all and to follow the guidelines at your own pace. Moving forward little by little will help. You don’t need shock therapy, or to suddenly, if you feel scared of going outside, take a five-kilometer walk.” She gives an example: First, when you leave the house, instead of taking the elevator, try the stairs, reach the entrance, and just like that, bit by bit, make gentle progress.

“Those of us who have lost loved ones, and I include myself in that group, will perhaps have a slower mourning process, and perhaps one marked with moments of great sorrow, which is heightened due to this psychological state.” To help people who were not able to physically say goodbye to overcome this loss, Laura Rojas-Marcos recommends performing the funeral rites and ceremonies that were not possible at the time of passing with family and friends. It is also important to talk about it, to share the feelings, frustrations, and sadness in order to let off steam.

While everyone’s individual circumstances may be very different, people who have lost their jobs, gone out of business, or seen their income drastically reduced as a result of the economic downturn cannot remain paralyzed. “I have met many people who have used this as an opportunity to learn new skills, enroll in courses, or even think about a career change.” She points out that this situation has forced us to be introspective and to appreciate what we have. “There have been people who, in the midst of tragedy, have found time to work on personal and even professional growth and to make important decisions that they may have been putting off for a long time. It’s important to see the bright side too”.

Guidelines for good mental health habits 

Moving beyond the issues that may have been caused by the coronavirus, the psychologist has some suggestions that are scientifically proven to help cultivate a positive attitude and cope with adversity of any kind. First: Focus on what you do have, not on shortcomings. “This does not mean refusing to acknowledge the problem. This is about being aware of the problem, but focusing on everything that do you have, and being realistic. This leads to confidence and peace of mind.”

As mindfulness suggests, it’s important to “focus on the present, know how you are going to use your energy and time in the 24 hours of the day. The eight-hour strategy is a good place to start: eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and the other eight for leisure.” You don’t need to feel bound to this hour division, to each their own, explains Laura Rojas-Marcos. What is necessary is a proactive attitude and a plan of action. And this should describe “what I am going to do and what my priorities are, that means differentiating between what’s urgent, what’s important and what can wait. Learning to prioritize also creates a sense of decisiveness, efficiency and effectiveness and the power to act on these feelings,” the psychologist explains.

In her list of guidelines for how to look on the bright side, Laura Rojas-Marcos considers both physical and mental self-care to be key, coupled with an awareness that pain doesn’t last forever. And if necessary, knowing how to ask for help from people who can give it to us, whether that’s someone close to you or a professional.

Finally, she suggests a simple exercise that she uses herself: Before bedtime, write down in a notebook the positive things that have happened to you or an achievement. By doing this, even when it’s been a hard day, “we go to sleep in a more pleasant mental and emotional state than if we start ruminating or falling into mental traps. Ending the day like this is a way to help the body and mind relax and face tomorrow with more energy”.