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Psychologist Identifies Stress Responses During The Pandemic


We're going to turn now to the emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on a lot of people across the country. That toll is heaviest, of course, on those who've become seriously ill and on their families and on all the workers who are on the front lines of battling this disease. But then there's everybody who's had their daily routines and social lives disrupted. Many people are feeling isolated, anxious and uncertain about the future.

We wanted to find out more about how people cope with these emotions, so we've called on Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill. She is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has a small private practice, and she also volunteers with Green Cross Academy of Traumatology. That's a disaster relief nonprofit that provides mental health services to medical providers, emergency responders and survivors in affected areas.

And, Dr. McNaughton-Cassill, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: As I just said, that one of the reasons we called you is that you've provided mental health care for people who've been affected by disasters and acts of terrorism. And I just wanted to ask if the stress responses that you have seen before - are they similar to what you're hearing from clients now?

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: Yes and no. I mean, from a physiological point of view, our body has a fight-or-flight response. That affects the way we deal with acute stress. And most mass disasters - hurricanes, terrorist events - affect a lot of people. They're sudden. They're stressful. But what's different about the more traditional disasters is there's a point of impact. The hurricane hits, and then the storm passes, and you're left cleaning up.

The problem with this pandemic is that it's sort of a rolling point of impact, and we're not sure when it's going to end. So there's some sort of different calculations in how to respond and cope with it.

MARTIN: As you just mentioned, most people are probably going to have some fear or worry. But what signs should we be looking for that we're experiencing or that somebody we care about is experiencing a dangerous level of anxiety?

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: Well, we know that disasters exacerbate the stress and anxiety that people already have. So if someone has a history of anxiety, depression, PTSD, this situation can certainly increase their stress levels. But even people who haven't been stressed are reporting high levels of anxiety right now.

You know, two things that are crucial for survival - our ability to support ourselves financially and our ability to stay healthy - are on the line in this situation. So people may be having trouble sleeping - getting to sleep, staying asleep. They may be having trouble with physiological signs of anxiety - everything from headaches and muscle aches to an upset stomach. And with this health crisis, that then immediately makes people start worrying that they're sick, so that adds another layer.

MARTIN: I don't know if you agree, but we hear from people that therapy still has stigma attached to it.


MARTIN: So can you explain to people who perhaps have never sought out a therapeutic relationship why it might be beneficial?

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: So I usually tell people that I look at therapy like a kaleidoscope. You come in with all the bits of glass and pieces of color that are your life. I'm not adding or subtracting to that. I'm just helping you turn it and look at it in different ways. And I think that's the same reason we turn to friends and family members when we're stressed.

The problem right now is that a lot of the people you might talk to are just as stressed as you are. And that's where having somebody who is trained to talk, to understand the link between feelings and the way you're thinking, can really help you just get another angle on how you're coping.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill. She is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And she also takes clients at a small private practice.

Dr. McNaughton-Cassill, thanks so much for joining us.

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: Oh, you're most welcome.