HealthMay 27, 2020

COVID-19 and anxiety: how can clinicians help?

By: Andrea Eisenberg, MD

For many, COVID-19 represents mental health risks. How can physicians help support their patients through this uncertain time?

In this anxiety-provoking time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's important for clinicians to consider not only their patients' physical health but also their mental well-being.

In a recent interview, Martin Hsia, PsyD, offers suggestions to help patients and physicians cope with the heightened stress of the spreading outbreak. Here's what Dr. Hsia, who has a background in cognitive behavioral therapy and a specialty in anxiety, OCD and panic disorders, has to say about coping with coronavirus and mental distress.

Who is at risk for COVID-19 mental health issues?

Anyone with a history of mental health issues could be at risk. Consider that for many, basic needs are under threat as businesses face hardships and lay employees off, heightening already stressful financial issues. But certain groups may face particular struggles.

For patients with contamination OCD, the frequent hand-washing recommendation may exacerbate the stress they already feel daily around needing to constantly wash. And for some, it may validate OCD behavior that their therapists have been trying to change.

Patients with depression and agoraphobia may rely on structure during the day to be able to leave their houses. Now they may be isolated in their homes with no option of leaving and engaging with others.

What about those with disturbing or repetitive thoughts? The best way to cope with a panic attack is to prevent it from happening altogether. But the constant news and social media coverage of the pandemic makes it hard not to get caught up in the chaos. Ideally, this can be turned into an opportunity to be productive, using the time to clean the house or work on long-neglected projects.


To hear the full interview with Dr. Hsia, visit AudioDigest.


How can clinicians be a resource to patients?

Beyond recommending social distancing, hand-washing and self-quarantine during the pandemic, how can clinicians support their patients' mental health?

One of Dr. Hsia's main themes is striking a balance of providing accurate information to the best of our abilities without inciting panic or anxiety. Patients are looking to their doctors for answers and reassurance, an increasingly tall task as the information about COVID-19 is constantly changing. Keep in mind that while we're used to dealing with infections and other medical issues - albeit not at this scale - for patients, this is all new territory.

At the same time, we need to monitor our own mental health. Just like on an airplane, where in emergencies you need to put on your own mask before helping others, clinicians need to practice self-care. This includes getting adequate sleep, social distancing and knowing your limits.

3 reminders for physicians and patients coping with COVID-19

Dr. Hsia offers the following suggestions to cope with the disrupted daily living and disappointments that COVID-19 has brought about.

  1. We're not alone. Others have had to cancel trips; they've had to struggle to find child care and keep their businesses afloat. Everybody has to deal with some sort of disappointment and adjustment.
  2. This isn't about any one person; this is about public health. We must all consider those at higher risk, like the elderly and immunocompromised, and think beyond our own needs.
  3. The more proactive we are now, the sooner we will flatten the curve and return to our normal lives.

The physician's responsibility

Above all, keep patients calm and informed, strive to be helpful and offer empathy while maintaining professionalism. It's similar to giving a patient bad news in that we need to show compassion while also providing professional care in serving our patients. And despite the anxiety we may feel as clinicians, in some cases we may need to prioritize our patients' needs over our own.

Dr. Hsia summarizes with this piece of advice: We can only do the best that we can do, and all we can do is the best that we can.

Andrea Eisenberg, MD
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