by Flor Montero
Interpreters and translators are no strangers to stress. Whether dealing with a fast-paced speaker or juggling multiple deadlines, we are well acquainted with the physical symptoms–and consequences–of stress.
However, the current worldwide pandemic is a new type of challenge not only for our guild, but also for the whole planet. Our lives have been disrupted at all levels, in ways we could have never foreseen, and no person is exempted from having to adjust to this new reality.
I have been a conference interpreter and translator for 23 years, but I am also a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice. During the last few months, patients have been reporting numerous panic attacks, intense anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, irritation, aggressive impulses, exhaustion, hopelessness and depression due to the COVID-19 situation. The common denominator behind these symptoms seems to be fear.
And with good reason! In this case, our translation projects were cancelled overnight and numerous payment processes were frozen, posing a serious financial problem. Many of us had to quickly learn how to use cutting-edge technology to do more remote work without having the time to reflect and plan for this change. There are also those who have lost loved ones or fear that they or the people they care about might get sick or die. If you add to that the complications of a prolonged lockdown (the constant bombardment of distressing news and not being able to walk freely, exercise outdoors, or see your friends or family), it is quite possible we could all be experiencing some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. These are indeed traumatizing times! In our different corners of the world, we are all struggling with an unprecedented level of uncertainty and pain.
How to Look After Our Own Mental Health?
First, it is important to acknowledge that any problem that we may have had before the pandemic –in terms of our coping mechanisms or mental health issues–has probably worsened. However, in our society there is stigma associated with seeking the help of a mental health professional. That is the first thing that has to change! There is no shame in asking for help when not feeling emotionally well, just as there is no shame in seeking medical guidance when physically ill. Then, we need to learn more about how our nervous system is responding, and what the best strategies are to deal with its hyperactivation (anxiety) or hypoactivation (depression). Let us not forget that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Role of the Nervous System
The fight/flight/freeze response is a mechanism the body has to protect us from danger. If used occasionally, as was its natural intention, it can save our lives. But if its use is prolonged beyond our thresholds, it can have serious effects on our mental and physical health. It can also weaken our immune response, a luxury we currently cannot afford. So we must be proactive in reducing our use of this stress response. Strategies vary because we all respond differently to interventions and have different preferences. The following are suggestions that work well for my patients and others. Give one (or all of them) a try!
Meditation involves choosing an anchor for your attention. When you get distracted–and you will– you return your attention to your anchor. Noticing your distraction and refocusing your attention changes your brain. Resulting mindfulness might sound like a buzzword, but it means giving your ruminating mind a break, so that the body can reset and return to a healthy baseline. Neuroscientists have proven the many benefits of this ancient practice: focused attention positively impacts brain structures, and provides more equanimity to the nervous system, and boosts the immune system. My favorite free meditation website is that of a Buddhist meditation teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach, at www.tarabrach.com. You might also find her guided meditations soothing and inspiring.
2. Yin Yoga
Yoga is another incredible ancient practice from the East, but Yin Yoga is different in that it specializes in gently triggering relaxation and restorative responses in the body. It combines yoga asanas (poses) with traditional Chinese medicine and Taoist principles. Most of the poses are done lying on the floor with props to reduce muscular effort and let gravity do the work of opening up your fascia and deep connective tissues, where much stress is stored in the body. The poses in Yin Yoga are held for longer than in other types of yoga, inducing meditative states and teaching us to breathe through discomfort. By doing this type of gentle stretching, we are opening blockages so that body flows can move freely. You might be surprised by how much better you can feel with so little effort. I recommend following Melissa West at https://melissawest.com/ or at her free YouTube channel.
3. Breath Work
Strengthening your lungs is essential to resisting coronavirus because the lungs are often most affected by it. Many Eastern breathing techniques, called pranayama, not only increase your respiratory strength, but are also very beneficial to your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls relaxation, sleep and digestion. Intentionally oxygenating your body also improves your cognitive function, making your translation work easier. You can find my own personal breath work practice, which because of my parents influence I have done since I was a teenager, at Udemy.
4. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as Tapping, is a modern form of psychotherapy that uses the principles of acupuncture to ease emotional or physical pain. The practice follows a structured procedure to establish the intention of the session, release what no longer serves and reorient the mind and body energies into a healthier state. Instead of using needles, a gentle tapping is done with the fingertips on different meridian points. It can be done following pre-written or pre-recorded scripts, but it is also very easy to do on your own. Because EFT is all about establishing clear communication with ourselves, language professionals will find its linguistic aspect aligns with the way we reason. My favorite EFT YouTuber is Brad Yates. He has a creative, humorous and insightful approach. You can also find him at https://tapwithbrad.mykajabi.com.
Hypnosis and Neuro Linguistic Programming i.e. NLP, two tools to access the subconscious mind, are two of my favorite practices. These forms of brief psychotherapy do not dwell on the pain and the heightened state of consciousness produces fast improvement and endorphins –highly desirable aids for the current times, especially if you are experiencing anxiety or sleep problems. If you have never tried hypnosis, I encourage you to try it. You can find good hypnosis materials online, but hypnosis works best when it is customized to a person’s current and specific needs. Many sessions are available on YouTube.
6. Tai Chi and Qigong
These are two forms of martial arts that seek to integrate mind and body through controlled movement and conscious breathing. Even though their purpose is to awaken the flow of qi (life energy) in the body, there is also scientific evidence that they benefit the nervous and immune systems. Dr. Paul Lam is a family physician and Tai Chi expert you can get to know on YouTube or his website: https://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/about-dr-paul-lam/. If you are interested in Qigong, you can visit Yoqi Yoga and Qigong at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCq6iAv6Ydn5-ccJ5Nm6Mcdg.
7. Binaural and Isochronic Beats
The principle behind this auditory therapy is that binaural beats, delivered between 1 and 30 Hz, create the same brainwave pattern one would experience during meditation. Not enough research has been done on this still controversial practice, but I personally find that playing isochronic beats (binaural beats that do not require headphones) while translating helps my focus, energy levels and concentration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3Zp8M81iqM&t=85s
The father of Interpersonal Neurobiology, Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, first said, “Name it to tame it.” This statement is based on the fact that when you find the right terminology for your sometimes not too clear mental or emotional states, you automatically activate the part of the brain that can help process them. The key is to explore and expand our emotional jargon, so as to hit the jackpot and find the exact translation for every second of your experience, a challenge that suits translators’ inquisitive orientation quite well. Writing about your thoughts and emotions is a highly therapeutic practice that does not require anything but your mind and a piece of paper.
9. Art Therapy
Similar to journaling, expressing your inner experience through other forms of art has the same effect. When you paint, draw, sculpt, take photos, dance or do anything artistic to express your emotions, you have a cathartic release and put some distance between you and what could be considered a problem. Then you look at your art and ask your creativity to find a solution for the problem, and draw or put it on top of the first design, using the original elements. Art is something that comes directly from the unconscious mind, so it can help provide you with insight into your motivations and unknown beliefs (those that were seeded in you without your full awareness). You will be surprised by the amount of inner knowledge you can acquire by something so simple and yet powerful.
Another neuroscientific principle states: “my issues live in my tissues”. It means that we store all our painful emotions and experiences in our muscle and cellular memories, causing all sorts of tension. If your body is tense, you will not be able to relax or think clearly. So, exercising is good for your physical wellness, but it can also promote mental health. There is also a specific form of therapy called somatic therapy that can help establish direct communication between body and mind, learning that what the mind holds to be true is not necessarily what the body believes. So, move your body, or if you’re so inclined, find a body psychotherapist.
I hope you will find inspiration in these resources, and in knowing that there are things you can do to feel better, increase your resilience and regain a sense of balance. Language professionals tend to be perfectionists, so I highly encourage you to let go of that for the time being. There are many things that are completely out of your control, so accepting this is how things are right now will give you more flexibility to relax within imperfection and cope better. Hope is a skill that can be learned, and it only requires some self-compassion (because this is difficult for all of us!) and treating yourself with the utmost kindness and loving self-acceptance. Stay safe and mentally healthy! Buen camino, amigos.