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Counseling professor helps others emerge from pandemic stress

Counseling professor helps others emerge from pandemic stress

SEPTEMBER 9, 2021 — Priscilla Prasath is an assistant professor in the UTSA College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Counseling. Her primary research focuses on positive mental health and strengths-based creative wellbeing approaches to counseling, teaching and supervision.

UTSA Today connected with her recently to discuss the new phenomenon of post-pandemic stress disorder. During the following Q&A, she provides valuable insight about how people can grow beyond this new condition.

Can we start with a standard definition of trauma? How do you and other mental health practitioners define it? Where does trauma manifest?

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), trauma is said to be experienced when a person is exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following way(s): direct exposure, witnessing the trauma, learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma, and indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics). The American Psychological Association defines trauma as events that pose significant threat (physical, emotional or psychological) to the safety of the victim or loved ones/friends and are overwhelming or shocking. So, it may be any event that has had a lasting effect upon self and the psyche.

The traumatic events we experience also trigger certain emotional and physical reactions, including exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation and physiological arousal. Traumatic experiences are stored in our mind and can exhibit as depression and/or in our bodies as various health conditions, such as heart disease. Common mental health problems are anxiety, depression, anger, intense fear, flashbacks, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The traumatic experiences alter and affect our perceptions, beliefs, cognition, attitudes, emotions and mood.

“The challenge is that we won’t know the true impact of this pandemic until after the event.”

Due to the pandemic, some mental health professionals are discussing growing incidences of post-pandemic stress disorder? Can you describe some of the telltale signs? How similar is it to PTSD?

I believe there are two aspects to this pandemic that make it a unique stressor: first, the invisible but high-risk and evolving threat of the COVID pandemic; and second, the uncertainty related to when the pandemic will end.

This trauma is not limited to those who have suffered serious COVID-19 illness or potential death. It can also impact those who have had family members suffer or die, and those who have witnessed or have been exposed to such adverse experiences. The stress induced by the pandemic may impact an individual’s psyche and lead to psychological disturbances similar to any other trauma. Given our knowledge from past traumatic experiences, including past pandemics, wars and natural disasters the world has experienced, we can speculate what could be some of the symptoms of the post-pandemic stress syndrome. These could include feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, loss of motivation, sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits, feeling emotionally numb and disinterested in engaging in activities, increased impulsivity and irritation, increased irrational and distorted beliefs about self, others and the world, fear of contracting the disease from others, leading to mistrust and self-alienation, fear of death, debilitating loneliness from limited interpersonal communications and aiding to unhealthy ways of coping, including substance use and self-harm.

We all know about the increases in mental health conditions that have been documented among the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the challenge is that we won’t know the true impact of this pandemic until after the event.

You research positive psychology. What motivated you to enter this field and how do you define it?

Positive psychology is about developing what is right within us rather than only fixing what is wrong. It is about looking at our strengths to begin change rather than solely focusing on our weaknesses. This is important for me as a counselor because mental health fields, for a long time, were concerned with curing mental disorders alone, and in doing so, moved away from the deeper well-springs of human potential and strengths. Don’t get me wrong, the world needed that approach. Yet, we were so busy “fixing” that we drifted away from “building” anything worthwhile.

You also explore the value of psychological capital (PsyCap) to survive trauma. Would you explain this concept?

Psychological capital are the ways in which the positive psychological characteristics of hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism support wellbeing. Research shows that individuals with a high PsyCap have a higher potential for overcoming obstacles in life.

There are three key elements to crisis and trauma intervention. The first is to build hope and expectations—a belief that that resolution is possible. Second is to establish self-confidence and trust that one has what it takes to get through a tough time. Lastly, the action to do something about it. This includes actively setting and pursuing attainable goals. These elements relate to PsyCap development at its core.

PsyCap can trigger positive mental wellbeing through such mechanisms as generating positive expectations and attributions to future outcomes, facilitating retentions of positive memories, enabling expanded opportunities to face new challenges, and reducing negativity bias. PsyCap can be nurtured and enhanced through social support, constructive relationships and close contact. My research on PsyCap shows that this mental health strategy serves as a protective buffer and mitigates the effects of stress and burnout.

What is the most important realization a person with COVID-related trauma needs to comprehend?

First, pause, relax and breathe! We call this practice “mindfulness,” which is the basic human ability to be fully present, to be aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and to avoid being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

Second, remember to begin with the logic of de-escalation. By adopting a less authoritative, less controlling and less confrontational approach during this time with every moving part in life, you will actually have more control. It is important to identify what’s within one’s control and what is beyond one’s control in order to use adaptive coping in areas where you do have control.

Third, know that we all are in this together and that you are not alone. Knowing that we globally have this shared experience connects us all on some deeper level. This, I believe, will help us all be more emotionally tuned in to one another and in that way, help each other to be more empathic, compassionate and altruistic. This will instill hope amid our shared sufferings and lead toward that positive growth we have been talking about.

During the first wave of the pandemic, you focused on the psychological capital, coping and wellbeing of college students. What does your research indicate?

We saw that hope and optimism were the most salient psychological characteristics for boosting students’ wellbeing. We also explored what coping approaches were associated with wellbeing. Active coping, acceptance, positive reframing and access to emotional support proved to be adaptive strategies for students participating in the study. Psychoeducation interventions may be used to teach adaptive coping skills and how to develop psychological capital. The interventions may be offered in small or large groups, and may be delivered in brief, short-term professional helping relationships. Web-based platforms, including YouTube videos and smartphone apps, can be utilized to promote the development of psychological capital and coping skills.

In my subsequent studies among college students, I found that non-binary individuals, international students and younger students experienced more stress, psychological distress and other mental health symptoms than other populations. Implications of our study findings are valuable to college counselors, mental health professionals in general, and educators and administrators associated with higher education.

Can you describe some of the techniques that are needed to ensure personal growth after a traumatic situation, like the pandemic?

It is important to understand that it often takes a long time for individuals to experience growth post-trauma. However, we find that any of the following areas can help capitalize on positive transformation after the pandemic:

  • Prioritize positive close relationships.
  • Consistent and intentional practice of self-regulation, self-care, and positive coping strategies.
  • Build a strong supportive structure/system in all of these seven life domains: academic/intellectual, relational/social, emotional/mental, physical/health, vocational/career, financial and spiritual.
  • Generate a greater sense of gratitude, appreciation and perspective on life.
  • With humility, commit to lifelong self-evaluation, self-critique, and learning.
  • Practice authenticity, empathy, and compassion in communicating with yourself and others.
  • Engage in deeper self-reflective practices to explore one’s greater purpose and meaning in life.

⇒ Learn more about the UTSA Department of Counseling.
⇒ Read about the comprehensive mental health support services that UTSA offers its students.

Finally, what new research can we expect from you that centers on post trauma growth (PTG)?

Emerging studies show that PTG may be dependent on the type of traumatic event experienced. This, I believe, is worth exploring further in the context of the pandemic to see how different groups of people who have experienced different types of trauma experience transformation.

This finding interested me because it means that we can learn how the shared experience of COVID throughout different cultures and countries result in similar or different responses. Also, I am interested in exploring factors that contribute to post-pandemic positive transformation—in particular, the role of personal psychological resources such as character strengths, career strengths and psychological capital. As each of these have potential to be developed further, I am interested in drawing findings that will result in designing innovative interventions for the community.

Milady Nazir

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