People of SU / Science / Technology and Health

Seattle U in the News: The Stress From COVID-19 is Tremendous

September 18, 2020

Kira Mauseth, PhD, senior instructor of Psychology, was interviewed for a Seattle Times story that examines the impacts on our mental health after six months of lock down. “Nobody is immune from this,” said Kira Mauseth, one of Washington state’s top behavioral health officials. “Nobody.”

The story in today's Seattle Times says "Sept. 23 will mark exactly six months since Gov. Jay Inslee first issued the stay-home order to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, economic woes, the stress of social justice protests against police brutality, divisive national politics, and now devastating wildfires that have killed dozens and fouled our air have piled up, deepening the strain on every one of us. The stress is tremendous.

“Nobody is immune from this,” said Kira Mauseth, one of Washington state’s top behavioral health officials. “Nobody.”

Here are additional excerpts with comments by Mauseth from the story:

Throw in the start of the new school year, the coming election, the usual onset of seasonal affective disorder and what surely will be an unusually stressful holiday season, and we have a unique set of circumstances swirling together just as we are about to hit a communal low emotionally, says Mauseth, a practicing clinical psychologist and Seattle University instructor who is co-lead of the state Department of Health’s (DOH) Behavioral Health Strike Team. 

That’s because, as the six-month mark of the stay-home order approaches, we’ve already begun the transition from the “honeymoon” phase of our emotional response to the pandemic and are rapidly moving toward “disillusionment.” This is the fight-or-flight stage and, emotionally speaking, we’re constantly scanning the horizon for danger. Next up, a potential second wave of the virus when cold weather returns.

For Washingtonians, the timing couldn’t be worse. The state says as many as 3 million state residents will experience “clinically significant” behavioral health symptoms.

It’s really a perfect storm when it comes to all of this,'” Mauseth said. “We can do it. People are stronger than this. Collectively we have more resilience and more compassion. But it’s going to be tough.”

Our first reaction in a disaster is heroic, quickly followed by the honeymoon phase, where we see some community cohesion and we rally around potential solutions (or not). Those relatively short phases have ended and we’re now on a long decline to disillusionment. If you think of it as a roller coaster ride, it’s the long drop where people raise their arms and scream till they hit bottom.

It’s at this point we’ll start to see real problems for vulnerable communities with social isolation, fears of the unknown around further restrictions and economic losses, plus mounting stress related to child care, school and work.

“Everybody’s brain right now is under a sort of stressed or traumatized way of acting — and that’s trauma with a small ‘t’ — as a result of being part of a disaster,” Mauseth said. “We’re all in the midst of this natural disaster. So one of the neurological consequences that happens when that’s the case is that our brains go into a mode where we process more emotionally, generally, and less thoughtfully, less slowly. We just tend to have more emotional responses. And that’s clear from people lashing out on social media, and just some of the awkwardness in parking lots or at the grocery store.”

Let’s call it COVID brain.