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How Practitioners Can Help Patients Deal with COVID-19-Driven Anxiety

May 26, 2020

Head outside your home right now and you’ll likely see empty streets, vacant tables at restaurants and deserted shelves at grocery stores. Conferences, sporting and theatrical events are being cancelled; schools largely suspended. Turn on the TV and you’ll be met with news about a race to create a COVID-19 vaccine and treatment, which doesn’t currently exist. You’ll hear about overwhelmed hospitals and a strain on our current healthcare system. For the general public, especially for people who regularly suffer from anxiety, this new normal can be highly overwhelming.

The reality is that many individuals are finding themselves feeling scared, confused, angry, and generally unsettled by today’s current events. All of these feelings are completely natural during this historic and highly chaotic time. However, as more people become quarantined or simply isolated from their daily routines, getting mental health treatment becomes even more valuable. Fortunately, thanks to telehealth, even when normal life events get disrupted, mental healthcare can remain consistent.    

Here are some ways mental health professionals can help patients cope with COVID-19.

Educate patients on the facts and science of COVID-19. By having up-to-date knowledge of the subject themselves, therapists can help ground a patient in fact and truth around the novel coronavirus. They can also educate patients on how and where they can turn for trusted information on the topic moving forward. By encouraging patients to rely on trusted news sources from experts in the field, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, patients can learn to ignore the noise, rumors and falsities to which they may be exposed, improving their mental health outlook. Identify one or two trusted information sources for the patient to refer to regularly for up-to-date information. Then, assist the patient in determining which media or social sources to limit or eliminate. Too much knowledge and research can be detrimental for those struggling with health-based anxiety, making the internet a very dangerous source of endless information.

Understand the impact of COVID-19 on the patient. Identify the ways in which COVID-19 has had a direct impact on the patient’s life, and process what that has been like for the patient. With universities moving to remote classes, travel and events being cancelled—both for work and for pleasure—and normal daily activities being limited, there is a lot of loss for people to process and grieve. For example, college students who are being forced to finish their final semesters remotely may struggle with the abrupt change to life as they knew it. Beyond the schoolwork, they have lost their school community, and most of their friends may be far away. Even graduations have been cancelled. Meanwhile, happy couples are deciding whether to postpone their wedding so their grandparents feel safe traveling for it. Recognizing the significant losses this pandemic has caused for patients can validate their disappointment and anger and help them process their grief, eventually getting them to a place where they are able to recover from the loss, which can be a very valuable therapeutic experience. Some people may also find that past losses, painful events or traumas are being stirred up as the COVID-19 situation unfolds.  When current stressors trigger past trauma, it can be important to work with a therapist to manage these feelings safely and effectively.

Navigate confusion around current events. Feeling overwhelmed, confused and preoccupied by coronavirus is common for anyone right now, but may be more difficult for some individuals to handle, especially those who suffer from regular anxiety or depression. Therapists are trained to help people identify, understand and make sense of individuals’ thoughts and feelings. They then know how to move toward action with evidence-based interventions to help resolve or manage the thoughts and emotions that cause distress. The current COVID-19 pandemic and evolving response is like nothing most of us have ever lived through before. It makes sense that some patients need help making sense of it all.      

Provide support for those working or schooling remotely. As more schools and businesses adopt remote learning and work models, people of all ages must figure out how to work and interact with each other in new ways. While working remotely has become the norm for many, it demands a skillset that may not come naturally to all. Young people and adolescents may struggle to adjust initially. The loss of routine, structure and social interactions, particularly for college students, has the potential to derail an individual’s progress and performance. Accessing information in new formats and navigating new technology also can pose a significant challenge for some, especially students engaged in specialized support services or other academic resources on their campuses. What’s more, entire families may now be attempting to work and study from home together. This sharp increase in time together, potentially in tight quarters, may not be a welcome change, and it can lead to all types of relational stress and conflict. As therapists, we need to teach patients best practices for working from home. For some, this may mean helping them set a schedule and establish boundaries. The ideal set up from remote work and learning may be a different from what patients are used to; as a result, showing patients how to turn off their work or school when it is in their home can be highly valuable.

The truth is, we’re all trying to navigate the disruption that the outbreak of COVID-19 is having on our day-to-day lives. While this is certainly a unique and unprecedented experience, the good news is that the approaches and coping mechanisms that are the most impactful are similar to what we as mental health professionals teach our patients every day. Whether appointments take place in traditional brick-and-mortar settings or virtually through the myriad technologies that exist, ensuring that even those in quarantine receive care when they need it is a vital approach during this challenging time.

Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, is director of psychological services for Amwell.

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