Coronavirus Anxiety: Helping Patients and Families Manage Fears

April 6, 2020
Caroline Edlund, Online Support Group Program Director at CancerCare, LCSW-R

Media coverage of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has ramped up significantly in recent weeks as new cases are being reported around the country and the world.

Media coverage of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has ramped up significantly in recent weeks as new cases are being reported around the country and the world. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic.1 Current reporting suggests that patients with cancer and others with chronic medical conditions may face higher risk of infection because their immune systems may be compromised due to disease or disease treatments.2 Given this potential risk factor, many patients and families are understandably worried: "Will my community be affected?” or “Is it safe to go to the hospital for treatment?” or “What if my loved one experiences symptoms?”

As healthcare professionals, we can provide crucial support to patients and families as they navigate uncertainty and concern about COVID-19.

1. Review safety protocols

By now, many hospitals and treatment centers have disseminated basic information to patients and families about the coronavirus.3 Many facilities have also updated their patient and visitor policies to reduce transmission risks and protect the health and safety of consumers and staff members alike. Such updates may be given via email, as handouts or posted throughout the facility; however, it is important to review this content with patients and families. Carve out time during the next appointment to ask patients if they have read and understand the materials provided. Encourage them to raise questions and concerns. Confirm that they understand the process for seeking help if experiencing new medical symptoms. Anxiety thrives on uncertainty, and having a plan in place will help patients and families feel empowered.

2. Provide information sources

It can be tempting for patients to Google symptoms or get caught up in details from the latest news cycle. While staying informed is certainly important, encourage patients to focus on reliable sources of medical information such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Through these sites, patients can educate themselves on important developments about the coronavirus without needing to follow the daily (or hourly) news cycles. It is important for patients to take breaks from distressing media coverage when needed and focus on the things in their lives that bring joy and meaning.

3. Promote self-care practices

Patients can lessen symptoms of anxiety through strengthening their self-care practices. Prioritizing sleep, eating a balanced and nutritious diet, getting regular exercise within guidelines set by the treating healthcare team — all of these can work to improve mood and daily functioning. Other effective strategies include grounding techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and visualization, among others. These techniques can provide significant relief from stress and anxiety with the added benefit that patients can use them anytime and anywhere. For those new to these practices, there are comprehensive information and instructions available online through websites like HelpGuide.org. Similarly, those with smart phones can use apps such as Headspace to get started.

4. Highlight the importance of support

Social connection plays an essential role in coping. Maintaining regular contact with loved ones provides an outlet for sharing feelings and relieving stress. It also contributes to a vital sense of normalcy, an added comfort and stabilizing force when facing so much uncertainty. At a time when many health experts are advising “social distancing” as a way to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus, there are still ways to connect with others.4 Through phone calls, email, social media, FaceTime, or other video chat apps, patients can maintain their bonds with loved ones. They can also choose to supplement their existing social networks by joining a support group or engaging in counseling. Many hospitals and treatment facilities provide supportive services as do non-profit organizations. At CancerCare, free individual counseling and professionally-led support groups are offered to patients and caregivers anywhere in the country through telephone and online-based services. Encourage patients to stay connected and get involved. Reinforce the message that help is available to them.

With the recent spread of COVID-19, cancer patients and their families have been forced to navigate an additional layer of fear and uncertainty. As healthcare professionals, we can strengthen their resilience and capacity to cope through providing support in the areas above.

Reference:

1. World Health Organization, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19,” 11 March 2020, https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020 accessed March 12, 2020

2. World Health Organization, “Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19),” 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses accessed March 12, 2020

3. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Hospital Preparedness Assessment Tool,” n.d., https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/hospital-preparedness-checklist.pdf accessed March 12, 2020

4. World Health Organization, “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public,” n.d., https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public accessed March 12, 2020