Just when we have become so hyper-connected, the psychological issues of our times seem to be rooted in problems connecting with others. This was the tone of the four-day European Congress for Body Psychotherapy in September, Berlin, where established psychotherapists discussed the challenges they face today. Anxiety, burnout and depression, as well as greater tendencies towards narcissism, alienation and dissociation are apparently among the highlights of today’s therapy rooms. But how are they linked by a lack of connection?
For Maurizio Stupiggia, professor of general psychology at the University of Genoa, it’s all a question of speed. The acceleration of human interactions and movement, combined with the increasing autonomy of technology, has left us vulnerable to losing our sense of the reality of ourselves. Referring to the neurological phenomenon of attentional blink, Stupiggia explained that our brains need a certain amount of time to integrate our successive states of being. Between the blinks, information slips into our unconscious, meaning that we only consciously process a portion of what we sense, with separate fragments lurking below. According to Stupiggia, we are losing connection with ourselves, our high-speed lives obstructing our ability to maintain a coherent sense of self. Definitely pause for thought.
Another target was the rise in the autonomy of the individual. Circling around the topic of burnout, many speakers referred to the pressures of the “you can do anything!” era that has replaced a more restrictive, authoritarian society. The narcissistic pressure to show how great we’re doing sits heavily and awkwardly on top of fears and vulnerability. Charged with making ourselves better and more efficient, we are struggling with the perceived need to show strength and be perfect, tending to sacrifice ourselves to others. Whereas therapy used to encourage people to be more than they had allowed themselves to be, today it needs to help people accept what they also cannot do. It’s okay to have limitations.
Stringing these themes together is loneliness. Marianne Bentzen, a psychotherapist specializing in developmental neuropsychology and trauma treatment, emphasized the importance of being able to synchronize with others. The sense of being in tune with others is what gives us the feeling of safety that we need in order to reach the coherent self that Stupiggia referred to. If we don’t have that attunement, we are less able to regulate our own emotional states. This harks back to the work of psychiatrist and trauma expert, Basel Van der Kolk. His seminal book, The Body Keeps the Score, details how our brains’ social engagement systems keep our stress and fear responses in check. Van der Kolk describes attunement as a mutual sense of being seen and heard. When we’re out of sync with others, we’re much more likely to slip into a hyper-vigilant anxious state, or a numbed-out depressed one.
Linking back to burnout and narcissism, a healthy synchronization with others isn’t exactly on the cards when we experience such pressure to perform. Adding to the expectations we have of ourselves, feeling overwhelmed by time pressure and over-stimulation make it difficult to pay enough attention to each other or our children. The upshot of this is that while we might think of psychotherapy as addressing our inner workings, one of its most important factors is how the therapeutic relationship remodels our ability to attune and attach to others. Contact with others is one of the best routes to a less troubled sense of ourselves, and this applies outside the therapy room too; another incentive to get off our screens and spend time together.