With news of the COVID-19 virus coming at us from all directions, anxiety is running high, and it's important to stay mindful of self-care. During these unprecedented times of self-quarantine and social distancing, we must all take steps to ensure we stay healthy.
MD Anderson experts have offered the following advice:
- Find a healthy balance: Limit the time you listen to news about the virus and instead participate in healthy activities. It’s important to engage in a lifestyle that encourages resilience and a healthy balance between work and home life.
- Keep perspective: Use reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization to find your information. Being educated can help relieve anxiety and speculation.
- Take care of your body: Stress can impact many parts of our bodies, and can cause shortness of breath, sore muscles and even fatigue. To avoid these side effects, it’s important to take care of your body. Deep breathing, meditation and yoga can all help.
Rapidly changing news can cause anxiety, and your physical and emotional wellness are equally important. Please be mindful of your own personal needs and practice self-care.
When I was undergoing treatment for colorectal cancer about eight years ago, it was really important that I stay away from other people, especially large groups. The chemotherapy drugs I was on made me more susceptible to infections, so I was already in the hospital quite a bit. I got bladder infections, kidney infections, you name it. I even got the MRSA “superbug” once.
But I was still so tired at that point that I was fine with going to bed at 8:30 every night and only getting to visit with small groups of family and close friends. I didn’t feel isolated because I was recovering. And, once my treatment was over, I was back to go, go, go. I was always busy and never at home.
Then came the 2019 novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
Social distancing has hit me really hard. I’m a very social person, so I’m not good at being alone. But, I have found a few ways to bring myself some peace of mind, even when I’m on my own. Here are four of them.
Taking sensible steps to protect myself
I’m already at a higher risk of contracting contagious diseases because of everything I’ve been through. If there’s something going around, I’m usually the first person to catch it. So, I was already taking sensible precautions like washing my hands frequently in my day-to-day life.
But if I were to get COVID-19, it would be very, very difficult. Some of the long-term effects of cancer treatment already make it harder for my body to fight off an infection. I have asthma, too, so that’s a double-whammy. That’s why I do everything the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends — and then some.
For instance, I’ve been avoiding people. I started working from home as soon as this virus became a pandemic. Now, if I go out for a walk, it is just around my block a few times, avoiding any and all people. If I have to go somewhere else, I wear gloves and a mask, and bring disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer with me.
I get my groceries delivered, and I wipe down all the containers before putting them away. When I get restaurant food delivered, I take it out of the original packaging and reheat it in the microwave. Because of the advice I got from another cancer survivor, I’ve even started dropping my keys in a separate bowl and disinfecting them before putting them back in my purse. I wash the clothes I left the house in as soon as I get home.
Some of these strategies may sound a bit extreme. But as a cancer survivor, I can’t be too careful. And this way, I know I’m doing absolutely everything I can to keep myself safe and healthy.
Practicing more — and better — self-care
Normally, I wouldn’t have time to do things like cook or meditate. But now, it’s like, “OK. It’s 5:30, and I’m done with work. I can’t go anywhere or do anything. So, what do I do now?”
My solution has been to go online. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the amount of free wellness support that’s available — especially to cancer survivors. I’ve done yoga classes, meditation and breathing exercises, among other things. It seems like there are activities available literally at any hour.
I’ve also been finding a lot more time to cook, which I love to do. Now, my challenge is to find recipes for the stuff I already have in my fridge or freezer. I was eating really well and working with a personal trainer before the coronavirus pandemic. So, I don’t want to eat junk. Now is not the time for me to get lazy.
One habit I haven’t changed is waking up at a normal time and putting on makeup. I feel like that’s a way of staying accountable, since I’m working from home. I feel better when I look good. And I want to look like my normal self. Besides, joining a video meeting right after rolling out of bed would not be pretty!
Deepening old relationships -- and forging new ones
One unexpected — and ironic — benefit of social distancing is that in some ways, it’s bringing me much closer to people.
I have one sister who lives in San Francisco, another who lives in New York City, and a brother, sister-in-law and niece who live in Tokyo. Before COVID-19 started, we only talked every once in a while. Now, we talk almost daily. We’re always checking in on each other.
I’ve also gotten to know some of my dance classmates better. I’ve been taking country western dance lessons for about a year. But that’s a very contact-driven hobby, so obviously, we can’t do it right now. Still, we all crave that connection, so we’ve started doing happy hours through Zoom where we play fun games to get to know each other better, and we plan to host a Zoom where we’ll line dance at our own homes. I’ve met kids and pets and gotten to know people better. It’s been really fun and an unexpected surprise.
My older friends and I have gotten creative in how we socialize, too. I had a coffee date recently via FaceTime. My friend and I sat and talked in just the same way we would’ve if we’d been at a coffee shop together. It was great — and not only because I feel less alone when I’m connecting with others. I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten up that early on a weekend, without anything to do or anywhere to go. But meeting up with her got me up early, and I worked out virtually right afterwards. That was exactly what I needed, because otherwise, I might’ve slept in. And one thing I don’t want to do is use this as an excuse to be lazy.
I’ve met some new people through online tools, too. In one, someone picks a movie and we all stream it and watch it together, and communicate silently through the app. I’ve also been seeing some new faces in MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program. After its monthly support group went online, other survivors started showing up, who maybe weren’t willing or able to come in person.
Savoring memories of good times and anticipating new ones
The last thing I’ve been doing to maintain my sanity is savoring good memories. I turned 40 on March 6, and I had a giant birthday party. Social distancing wasn’t a thing yet, so I got to see a lot of my friends. About 80 people came and celebrated with me. We had an amazing time that I will never forget.
Little did I know, that party would prove to be my own (and many other people’s) “last hurrah” — at least, for a little while. I created a scrapbook to remember it, then shared a collage and video montage of it on social media. Now, I’m imagining all the new memories I’m going to create, once this coronavirus is behind us.
Social distancing isn’t going to be over tomorrow, or even next week. And it’s easy to get depressed if you stay immersed in the news or don’t take steps to take care of yourself. But I am a very positive person, and that’s how I plan to stay. That’s why I am collecting all of these strategies now, so I will have lots of options down the road — and for as long as I need them.
Find COVID-19 resources and learn how MD Anderson is responding to the pandemic.
With the constant stream of information surrounding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), it’s easy to feel stressed or anxious. But stress can weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to stay healthy. That’s why it’s so important to manage your stress and anxiety using healthy coping methods.
We spoke with Diana Nichols, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at MD Anderson, about how to manage your COVID-19 anxiety and stress.
Limit COVID-19 updates
One of the easiest ways you can reduce stress and anxiety is to limit your exposure to things that trigger anxiety. Staying informed is important, but with so much new information coming out so rapidly on television and social media, it’s important to set boundaries for when and how much news you read about the pandemic. This can help keep feelings of anxiety at bay.
“It’s important to choose your information sources carefully,” says Nichols. She recommends seeking information from trusted, reliable sources, including balanced media outlets, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health care organizations like MD Anderson.
“Moderation is key,” says Nichols. She recommends checking updates two or three times a day to keep from being overwhelmed. “Check in often enough to get only the information you need to know,” she adds.
Take care of your body
Stress can impact many parts of our bodies, and can cause shortness of breath, sore muscles and even fatigue. To avoid these side effects, it’s important to take care of your body. Deep breathing, meditation and yoga can all help.
“Taking a few minutes to go through a short meditation can be helpful when things get overwhelming,” says Nichols. She adds there are many apps for smartphones that offer guided meditation to help you relax as needed.
Maintaining a healthy diet also plays an important part in stress management. Choosing plant-based proteins, eating whole grains and limiting red meat are all ways to give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. It’s also important to limit alcohol. For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. It is linked to several cancers, including breast, colorectal and liver cancer.
Though anxiety can keep you awake, aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night so your body can reset. “It can be stressful to be in bed and not be sleeping,” says Nichols. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, she recommends reading in low light or trying a mindfulness exercise to quiet your thoughts.
Talk about your fears
It’s OK to feel overwhelmed, but keeping it inside can lead to more serious mental health consequences. Sharing your fears and anxieties with loved ones may help you feel less alone. Talking about your feelings with others can also help you cope.
But, Nichols says, if conversations about current world events cause more anxiety, you should avoid these topics. “It’s always helpful to process thoughts and feelings, but if talking to certain people makes you more anxious, you can limit your contact with them,” she says.
If this is the case for you, journaling is a good way to share your thoughts, without having to talk about them with your friends or family. By writing things down, you can cope with a range of emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis or current world events. The benefit comes from writing your thoughts, but you don’t necessarily have to let anyone read them if you don’t want to.
Nichols says seeking professional guidance can also help. If you’re an MD Anderson patient or caregiver, reach out to your social work counselor.
Use good hand hygiene
While there’s no guarantee that you or a loved one won’t get COVID-19, the best thing you can do is to manage your risks by taking precautions, including washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching your eyes and staying home if you aren’t feeling well.
And, know that the safety and health of our patients and workforce members is our top priority at MD Anderson, and that we are rapidly implementing protocols and precautions to protect you. If you have concerns, speak with your care team by sending a message via MyChart or by calling the clinic. You can find more information and learn about these precautions at mdanderson.org/coronavirus.
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