People of SU / Science / Technology and Health

Seattle U in the News: How to deal with mask dilemmas, social anxiety as Washington reopens

July 1, 2021

Senior instructor of Psychology Kira Mauseth, PhD, was among those interviewed for a Seattle Times story about how we might cope with societal reopening in light of lingering concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some excerpts from the story:

Our primary self-care tool in this crisis, says Kira Mauseth, Seattle University psychology professor and co-lead of the state Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Strike Team, is awareness. To calm your anxiety, you have to notice it. Your senses, she says, are the ticket both in and out of anxiety. The first signs are usually a faster pulse or breath rate or a rise in temperature. Once you’ve noticed what’s happening, you can find a way to reset and calm your senses. This could be deep breathing, taking a walk or a shower or listening to music.

“The No. 1 thing to do is regulate your breathing. It’s physically impossible to have a panic attack when you are regulating your breathing. Once you’ve calmed down, the logical part of your brain can come on board,” says Mauseth, who also co-hosts a Department of Health podcast, “Coping with COVID.”

Next, you want to frame these unexpected changes as challenges rather than threats. Threats demand three choices—fight, flight or freeze—putting the body’s limbic system on red alert. Living in that state chronically—as many have for over a year— contributes to anxiety, depression and even disease. Challenges, on the other hand, ask for lists of resources, strategies and action—and can grow resiliency and hope.

Suddenly becoming more social again also offers its own challenges.

“People are more than ready to connect again. I think there’s a pent-up energy around that,” says Jane Simoni, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Washington.

Mauseth agrees, envisioning potential for greater risk-taking: “You have a neurological desire to get more dopamine and serotonin, to feel good again. You have really strongly held beliefs on sensitive topics. The limbic system is exhausted, which means we are emotionally dysregulated, and we now have more opportunity for social contact than we’ve had in a year.”

She recommends taking social steps at your own pace, being ready to go home if you feel uneasy. If you’re drinking, plan ahead for designated drivers.

In times of stress, we react out of fear before logic or compassion. Don’t make any life-changing comments or decisions before taking a breath or a walk. When you are calm, Mauseth recommends “active listening”—listening to understand the other’s point of view with empathy. This boosts connection, unlike trying to “solve” the problem, which can feel dismissive and break connection. “Trying to force someone to see things your way is hard anyway, but especially hard under these conditions,” she says. 

Letting someone else tell their side, and compassionately listening, makes them feel heard and you both feel connected to a fellow human, which is what we all really need right now. Win-win.