A man in lockdown – how Mr K. struggles with home office stress and a marriage crisis

Mr. K. can hardly stand it in the home office. He has existential fears and stress with his wife and children. What can he do to avoid going nuts and mastering the situation?

By Reinhild Fürstenberg

Mr K. is sitting in front of me. I can’t help him anyway … Or can I conjure up a job? Money? A bigger apartment? Can I prevent the new lockdown? Hardly likely. I see resignation and hopelessness – and a man who currently no longer sees any solution strategies and therefore no longer sees any perspective for himself.

Mr K. had already been working short-time in the home office for a few months in the spring, but has now returned to normal working hours in the company for two months – finally! At home the blanket fell on Mr. K.’s head: he couldn’t work properly in the small apartment, one of his small children always wanted something from him – and his wife has never had so much crashing as during this time: Ms. K. was fired as part-time worker in a restaurant. A new job should finally begin, but was canceled again due to current developments. Mr K. is now also afraid of slipping back into short-time work. He doesn’t know how to feed his family with 67 percent short-time work benefits.

It was not only the existential worries that made the tensions at the couple level so aggressive that Mr K. has the feeling that this Corona time can destroy his marriage. He’s never had a crisis like this! What feelings it triggers in him, I would like to know? Powerlessness, despair, frustration, helplessness … and a lot of fear, existential.

Physically, too, he is no longer well: Mr. K. suffers from agonizing lack of drive with simultaneous inner restlessness. He can no longer sleep, his heart sometimes literally beats to his neck, he is aggressive and thin-skinned. He doesn’t recognize himself.

Reinhild Fürstenberg is a health scientist, systemic consultant and family therapist. That directed by her Fürstenberg Institute from Hamburg advises companies, managers and employees on how to reduce psychological stress, shape changes in a healthy way and improve the compatibility of work, family and private life. For the stern the expert reports in loose succession of cases from her consultation – and explains what we can learn from them.

© Verena Reinke

Corona threatens key human needs

Unfortunately, Mr K.’s story is no longer an isolated case in my deliberations. Corona threatens central human needs such as security, self-determination, plannability, control, freedom, structure and belonging. Domestic isolation with contact restrictions and quarantine are exceptional situations that many have never experienced – and now it’s happening again.

And so this time makes us powerless and passive. And Corona is scary. A lot of fear! And fear paralyzes. Fear reduces the perspective, narrows it down to a small peephole – in the worst-case scenario. Fear freezes us as the third possibility our survival brain has designed for us.

I explain to Mr. K. what I mean: First, fear sets off a stress reaction that sets our system to “Fight or Flight”: We have more capacities, can do more, and are quicker to implement. If this condition persists, for example due to Corona, these possibilities are exhausted. Our primordial brain has the feeling that it is permanently surrounded by danger and that it has to give up. We fall into a kind of rigidity: noticeable in the inner restlessness and at the same time agonizing lack of drive.

“Density stress” in lockdown

In the event of a lockdown and the uncertainty as to how long this will really last, there are additional stressors – both health and financial – in addition to the existential fear: fear of having to live in a confined space again in the dark season. Not having your own space, your own time, or freedom: science calls this phenomenon “density stress”.

In families, a corona lockdown also keeps a close eye on smoldering conflicts and exacerbates them. There is a lack of possible solutions, because old crisis management strategies usually do not work. What Mr. K. needs now is stabilization and the development of options and perspectives, of things that he can still do. Called self-efficacy. This is where I start and let Mr. K. record a timeline, his lifeline, so to speak. On this line he should draw and describe three crises that he has already overcome in his life, as well as three great successes that he has achieved.

For the rest of the hour I let Mr. K. tell me how he overcame these past crises and achieved his successes. In fact, what skills helped him. It is noticeable that, above all, his stubbornness has always helped him to find and pursue solutions to his goals. To conclude, I would ask Mr. K., from all the skills that have helped him in the past crises and successes, to highlight those who could help him again in the current crisis. Mr. K. not only marks his stubbornness, but also another ability: to get help and sometimes to break new ground. He’s also very good at taking care of himself – a difficult home made him learn that at an early age.

Ways out of helplessness

As a homework assignment, I ask Mr. K. to bring these skills back to life – he can rely on them. You give him security. So he can do something for himself even in the Corona period and in lockdown. The “new ways” could be individually developed strategies that allow him to cope better with the new situation, such as a new sports routine or a weekly “cooking duel” with the family.

With this strength, he and his wife could think about how to better divide the rooms so that everyone has their own room. And can some rules in child-rearing currently pause? Just to make it easier for yourself? Mr. K. could also be very stubborn, as one of his core competencies, pursuing a new structure in his everyday life, with fixed time contingents for himself, for work and for the family – that would give him the ability to plan.

All of this allows Mr. K. to find his way out of helplessness and resignation and become self-effective again. I advise him to let his fear be there: it just wants to protect him. But maybe he could put his regained security next to fear? We arrange to meet for another hour. Then we want to take on the couple level: more eye level, more me-time for everyone, more free spaces, inside and outside. And again more relationship instead of education.

Here are 10 tips for the Corona period:

  1. When it comes to isolation times: make this time as active as possible! In spite of everything, make them yours. This significantly reduces feelings of powerlessness and being at the mercy.
  2. Have your “Why” in mind: The reason why you might find the measures to be good.
  3. Reflect on your own individual abilities: The crisis may be new, but it is not the first in life. With each crisis you have long prepared for the current one. Our system is designed to survive and overcome crises.
  4. Be active in self-care: Do what has always been good for you and take care of yourself: Healthy eating, home exercise with the help of online training and good sleep hygiene help to feel that you have “done” something. It also keeps you healthy and helps reduce emotional stress.
  5. Keep routines if possible – and develop new ones individually.
  6. Set appointments: for getting up, meals, sports or phone calls with friends. Maintain social contacts!
  7. Get out of the resistance – if necessary with support – find an accepting attitude towards the facts that you cannot change and instead focus your energy on things that you can change for the better.
  8. Take responsibility! Help where you can, calm down, and encourage yourself and others. It gives you a valuable job and indeed your soul is listening …
  9. Be sure to keep your eyes open if children around you seem strangely different or a woman seems to be in need – be sure to ask, offer help.
  10. And don’t hesitate to get help if needed. If, for example, fear or low spirits become unbearable, contact the patient telephone of the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (116117) or the telephone counseling (0800 – 111 0 111 or 0800 – 111 0 222). If you have acute thoughts of suicide, contact the emergency services of your local psychiatric clinic or the emergency services (112) immediately.

* Anonymized case study from the advisory practice of the Fürstenberg Institute. The case was anonymized with the consent of the person concerned

More columns by Reinhild Fürstenberg:

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