There is a novel, deadly viral pandemic at our doorsteps that has disrupted every aspect of our daily lives. It’s hard in these tumultuous times to suppress the feeling that we are facing a doom of Biblical proportions. It’s hard to suppress the constant, invasive feeling of anxiety, to settle down the knot in our stomachs, to convince ourselves that ‘everything is going to be okay’. It’s so hard that the number one thing I am seeing in my clinic currently is not COVID-19, but COVID-induced anxiety.
This pandemic is certainly something to take seriously; the impending fear of it has pushed me to the brink of my own anxieties. As a healthcare worker seeing sick patients on a daily basis, a physician with patients on transplant lists and immunosuppressive drugs, and as a daughter with aging parents, every aspect of this pandemic worries me. While last week I treated my anxiety by chewing on a steady dose of antacids, this week I have shifted my perspective.
I recently posted on Twitter about COVID-19 and the feeling of impending devastation that healthcare workers are facing. I compared that feeling to the anxiety of watching a tsunami as it inches towards the shore. The hundreds of responses I received have moved me and changed my thinking. I received notes from soldiers describing similar feelings prior to deployment, from firemen and women attesting to the same before entering a burning building, and from patients describing a similar fear while waiting for the results of a biopsy.
This helped me realize that we are not the first, nor the last, of humankind to face such formidable times, and we are certainly better equipped than our ancestors. The strength of my fellow citizens helped brace me for the coming challenge, and strengthened my resolve to go to work with steady hands.
I have started asking every patient, prior to the start of each visit, how they are coping with the stressors of this pandemic. I thought it would be helpful to summarize some of the advice I have given in my own practice:
First, recognize that you are not alone. Many of us, your physicians included, are experiencing similar fears and anxieties. If people without anxiety disorders are feeling anxious, recognize that symptoms may be magnified significantly in patients with underlying mental health conditions.
For the majority of Americans and citizens of the world, our personal, social and financial lives have been completely disrupted. And these disruptions are unprecedented in our lifetimes. It is okay to feel anxious and scared about this, and it’s okay to talk about it with those you love. Lean on your family, friends and spiritual sources for support. Organize virtual get-togethers, create online communities, call someone if you need to talk. Just because we are physically distant during this time doesn’t mean we need to be emotionally distant as well.
Second, recognize the things you can control. There are a million things about this pandemic that are beyond the control of any single person – from the economy and the President’s behavior, to mask and ventilator shortages. However, there are many things in your own life you can control. Write those things down. Come up with a list. Recognize what you have power over and focus on those projects.
Third, practice self-care. This means do all the things that your doctor normally recommends – eat healthy, get good sleep, avoid too much screen time, and try to get some exercise. Stress and anxiety can take a heavy toll on the body and can make you feel more fatigued. Try to build in some healthy habits to counteract these negative effects of stress.
If you are having a hard time finding time to do healthy activities, consider scheduling it in – even 30 minutes of exercise or meditation can make a big difference in your mental health. We all deserve to spend at least 30 minutes per day on ourselves – that’s 2% of your day, for those doing the math.
And lastly, if you need extra help, reach out to your physician or call a help hotline. There are many people at the ready to support those who need it most.
While there are certainly dark and unprecedented days ahead, perseverance might be the most underrated of human qualities. And I am certain that together, we will persevere.