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Professor offers ways to manage stress during unpredictable times

Professor offers ways to manage stress during unpredictable times

McNaughton-Cassill explores people’s stress responses in our technologically driven world.


APRIL 21, 2020 — Epidemics and disasters are certainly not rare in the history of the world, but the coronavirus pandemic unfolding around the globe has raised a unique set of challenges. While most disasters involve a particular locale, COVID-19 has spread rapidly in our interconnected world. Suddenly we are all trying to hide from an invisible enemy that can be transmitted by people who don’t even know they are sick. 

After natural disasters people talk about the confusion they feel when they don’t recognize their homes or communities and have lost the rhythms of their daily lives. In contrast, the coronavirus has changed our lives but not our environments. Going to the grocery store has become an exercise in patience and physical distancing. Things we took for granted—like our schools, our jobs, and our plans for the future—seem tenuous. Annual sporting and cultural events have been canceled. Malls, movie theaters, restaurants and gyms—places that we might have gone to for distraction and comfort—are closed. 

In short, COVID-19 has changed the way we view and navigate the world. In the ordinary course of life, we operate based on a set of fixed beliefs, sometimes called schemas, and automatic responses, often habits. 

When too many of these patterns change quickly, we can experience what psychologists call dissociation. Suddenly, the world around us, our perceptions of ourselves and others, even our emotional responses and identity seem unfamiliar. 

In the minutes following a car crash people often say that they had trouble making sense of what happened. Rates of dissociation go up during war and disasters too. No wonder so many of us are having difficulty feeling grounded as we try to create new routines.

“Suddenly, the world around us, our perceptions of ourselves and others, even our emotional responses and identity seem unfamiliar.”

But feeling adrift is only one of the common responses to trauma. In the face of danger people can also become hypervigilant. Essentially, this means that they are continually searching for signs of threat. 

Hypervigilance can take the form of obsessively following the news and excessive worry about whether physical symptoms indicate you are sick. Sometimes individuals become so concerned about avoiding infection that they can’t complete routine tasks, like checking the mail or cooking meals. 

People may also experience emotional changes. Worry about finances, spending time cooped up with the same people and not knowing when all of this will end can make people feel vulnerable and out of control. 

While this makes some people feel depressed or hopeless, others respond with anger and frustration. Whether you get sad or impatient, it takes energy on your part. And it may cause difficulties in your relationships. 

Distress can also contribute to troubled sleep, disrupt decision making, weakened concentration and memory. 

Fortunately, there are things we can do to manage our trauma responses. To combat feelings of dissociation, we need to create routines and to anchor ourselves in the real world. Consciously plan a new habit and make sure to leave time for exercise and downtime. Remind yourself that spring is still happening, even if all you can do is to watch from a window. Find an online app on mindfulness, meditation or relaxation and experiment to see what makes you feel calmer and more grounded. Some of these techniques could also help you improve the quality of your sleep. 

Learn more about McNaughton-Cassill’s research on mental health.
Read about campaign fatigue in an interview with McNaughton-Cassill in Sombrilla Magazine.
Read an interview with McNaughton-Cassill from UTSA Today.

To manage feelings of anxiety, depression or anger, spend a day noticing the situations that trigger your emotions and the thoughts that accompany them. Is your roommate trying to drive you nuts by chewing so loudly, or are they oblivious? Either way, could you ask them to stop or get some headphones? Are you feeling like you are falling behind at work? Remind yourself that the key right now is to keep things rolling, not to set productivity records. If you are concerned about your finances, use the internet to see what help is available. 

When you start to worry that you will never think clearly again, cut yourself some slack. Take a break to watch a movie, take a nap, cuddle your kids or play with your pets. Use technology to reach out to someone you care about and haven’t connected with for a while. 

In short, remember that we are a resilient species. And not only are we good at adapting to change, but sometimes we even learn and grow from dealing with adversity. 

A version of this article was also published by Psychology Today.

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