«When the going gets tough, we unite more. It’s a way of protecting ourselves»

The psychologist, writer and researcher, Alejandra Vallejo-Nágera (Madrid, 1958) remains prudent and calm these days, learning to reinvent her way of working, in the hope that the current crisis will change the world. Because, otherwise, this would all have been meaningless and for nothing. She was alone during lockdown and, for her classes, was forced to change the way she teaches and connects with her students. She admits that online classes are a good resource, but that your ability to concentrate is reduced when you have to keep focusing on a screen for hours on end.

Over the last few months you’ve taught many people to reduce their anxiety and anguish levels. What was your secret for emotional survival during the COVID-19 lockdown measures?
I stuck to highly rigorous schedules, ensuring I always got up and went to bed at the same time, while making a distinction at the weekend, when I completely disconnected from the telephone, computer, news and work matters. I was also pretty careful with what I ate and I took exercise every day with a group on Zoom, which helped me a lot to keep in contact with other people. In addition, I took good care of my appearance, dressing every day as though I was going out to work, and sleeping seven to eight hours a night. For the first time, I remembered my dreams and I had a few nightmares.

What must we learn in order to feel better?
This confinement has given us the chance to devote time to what we have close at hand, something that perhaps previously went unnoticed, as we were focused on fulfilling a huge number of professional tasks and social engagements. What was really impressive was how much we connected via the telephone and video conferences with our loved ones. Some people have spoken more than ever with their parents and siblings, and I believe we’ve all received messages and phone calls from people with whom we had lost contact. When the going gets tough, we unite more. It’s a way of protecting ourselves.

You say that a good part of the ailments we suffer have an emotional cause. What do you mean?
Medical science has thousands of studies supporting the correlation between body and mind. The problem is that our unconscious does not distinguish between past traumatic experiences and what is happening at present, which means very weak signals lead it to anticipate negative situations. Fear prevents us from sleeping, accelerates our heart rate and totally disrupts our eating and drinking habits. Our cortisol and adrenaline levels shoot up and, after a while, we start suffering all kinds of injuries.

And in a crisis alert, is the situation worse?
In these circumstances, we are unable to see the solutions. COVID-19 has put our lives at risk and totally upset all our plans, agendas, projects, jobs, relationships… in fact, almost every facet of our lives we were pretty good at. This has been a full-blown crisis, in which we have had to unlearn long-established habits in order to learn new ones. The strange thing is that, just when we had begun to readapt, we now have to get back to normal, but, of course, it’s no longer normal out there. In the history of mankind, this experience has been repeated many times and we’ve always come through all right. And we’ll do so again now. I’m sure of that.

«In the history of mankind, this experience has been repeated many times and we’ve always come through all right»

What gives meaning to life?
For me, everything that motivates me to get up in good spirits every morning, although there may be no reason to be cheerful. This is what enables people to keep fighting when they have a cancer, to maintain a positive attitude when they have had a leg amputated. This is the reason why we don’t take our own lives, even when we’re going through a tough period. In my case, the people I love have always given meaning to my life. Emotional ties have helped me feel useful and do things for some reason and for someone. I have no fear of death, but I do fear pain and decrepitude.

What great lesson would you like to pass on to others?
Say and demonstrate what you love and who you love. And do it in good time.

What do you make of the new panorama? What opportunities for change do you see?
Above all else, I’m positive, which means that things may get better if we do something to make it happen. I don’t feel capable of predicting anything in particular, but I believe we’ve recovered the idea of the importance of the family as a social good and the profound need to connect with others. Before COVID-19, we were engulfed in a constant hectic rush with everyone in their own little world. These attitudes led to us sending an email to a colleague instead of going over to their desk to speak to them.

As a psychologist, you accompany people in those final moments of their lives, write and give lectures. What projects have you lined up for this year?
Reinventing myself, which means learning to work in the virtual world. I think I’m going to find it pretty difficult to adapt to a therapeutic or teaching relationship via a screen. I don’t know if I’ll be able to enjoy giving virtual classes as much as when I’m interacting directly with students. We’ll see.