Care for the Caregiver: How to Handle Stress and Anxiety During COVID-19

April 21, 2020

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers are continuing to treat patients during these the COVID-19 pandemic — and many are doing so while dealing with their own stresses and anxieties. If you are a healthcare provider, you may be wondering how you can help yourself while continuing to be there for your patients.

William Pirl, MD, MPH, vice chair for Psychosocial Oncology at Dana-Farber, offers these recommendations.

Acknowledge the impact.

This time has been especially tough because of all the unknowns around what we may have to deal with in providing medical clarity: an escalating number of patients, changes in procedures and situations, and a feeling like we are not necessarily in control of such things. We’ve had to make plans, see what happens, and then remake plans — sometimes in the same day. That can make us feel we are spinning our wheels and not going anywhere. In situations with things constantly changing, what you are doing is actually adapting.

Schedule time with colleagues.

When we encounter challenges with patients or the demands of our jobs, we are used to having colleagues we can talk with in the normal course of a day. Now, with many more people working remotely, we are managing a lot of feelings on our own without that same support.

Work harder to put those moments of contact into your day. Have planned talks or check-ins with colleagues on your schedule throughout the day — chances to debrief, get their advice, or just some fun social time.

Think like your patients.

This is a difficult time for patients on a variety of levels. Due to the current policy at Dana-Farber and many other hospitals, patients can’t have visitors, whether at outpatient appointments or if they get hospitalized. Some patients are more afraid than ever just to come to appointments. Having the awareness that patients are experiencing these challenges — and that these things are on their minds — can be helpful in getting your hands around your own stress.

[Are you a Dana-Farber patient? Get more information here on what Dana-Farber is doing during COVID-19.]

Plan moments of joy.

Since there is so much uncertainty, and we are not sure how long some new procedures and restrictions may ask, time can seem like it blends together with no ending or demarcations between the days.

The same way you want to check in with your colleagues regularly, make sure you schedule things in the future that you can look forward to — maybe a virtual get-together with friends you have not seen in a long time — so you have some sense of time passing and an awareness that positive things are ahead.

Connect with your body.

This current situation has many elements of a trauma or pre-traumatic situation. In traumas people shut down and can start to feel numb. Find ways to feel connected to your body by exercising and trying to remain physically active. You want to be present in your body and feel your body – not just go from one day to the next.

Check out these helpful resources:

Limit your news exposure.

You need to know what’s going on with COVID-19, but not every minute of the day. Pick one time daily to read or watch the news, preferably in the morning — and not before bed. You should be informed, but the pandemic should not always be on your mind.

Cut coworkers some slack.

Everybody is really doing their best right now, trying to deal with all the demands of their jobs, while in many cases also dealing with other issues like young kids at home or elderly parents that need help. This is not the time to be faulting people for things. Everyone is at the limits of their coping abilities.

Don’t expect to know the answers.

There has really been nothing like COVID-19 in our lifetimes. What makes this different than other disasters or tragic events we might look to for comparison is the uncertain time period connected to it. We don’t know what the future holds. All we can do is deal with it together, and do the best we can.

Keep in mind: humans are incredibly resilient.

Being a psychiatrist in a cancer center, I get to witness this every day. People can be faced with terrible things, and even though they might be painful while we are going through them, we are actually much better at coping than we think. It is a known psychological fact. People are not good at predicting their coping abilities in situations like this. We can do it, and we will make it through.