COVID-19: How Cancer Patients Can Beat Stress

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April 17, 2020


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Along with its germs, COVID-19 has brought fear, anxiety and depression to many households. For cancer patients and others facing a health crisis ― and even for cancer survivors ― stress can be particularly harmful. Evidence shows that chronic stress ramps up inflammation in the body, which can produce emotional and physical symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, headaches and depression.

“These are challenging times for patients, their families and caregivers,” said M. Beatriz Currier, M.D. (pictured at left), a psychiatrist who is the director of the Cancer Patient Support Center at Miami Cancer Institute. “It is understandable that people are feeling out of sorts and uncertain about what is ahead.”

The good news, Dr. Currier said, is that there are tried and true ways to combat some of the most common emotional and physical stress-related symptoms she is seeing, such as insomnia, fatigue and a sense of helplessness. To help patients cope with the pandemic and beyond, she suggests:

Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep is ground zero for mental health, according to Dr. Currier. Maintain a regular sleep schedule and routine; don’t watch TV, read or use your cell phone/iPad in bed; avoid alcohol, which disrupts sleep; make your bedroom quiet and comfortable; and hide the clock if you are a clock watcher.

“Put your phone across the room if you are inclined to look at it,” Dr. Currier said. “And if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, get up, go to your family room and read a book or a magazine. Don’t go on your phone. When sleepy, return to your bed.”

She also suggests avoiding blue-light screen exposure after 7 p.m. If unable to do so, use amber lenses to block the blue-light screen exposure that can lead to wakefulness. Amber lenses can be ordered online as clip-ons for reading glasses or a pair of glasses with clear amber lenses. In addition, use meditation mindfulness apps for sleep such as Calm and Insight Timer. See links below.

Exercise

Moderate exercise, about 25 minutes a day, has real benefits. “This must be a part of your daily routine. You can do online exercise classes, yoga, or walk in your neighborhood, as long as you practice social distancing,” she said. “And if you can just do 10 minutes a day, start with that. Build time slowly.”

Stay Socially Connected

Social distancing doesn’t mean isolation. “While social distancing is absolutely essential and necessary, we should stay socially connected through technology such as the phone, Facetime and online platforms,” Dr. Currier said.

If your health permits, optimize your family time. Talk with each other, play board games, cook together, go on a walk or a bike ride. “Many patients are fretting about their children starting online school programs. If you’re going through treatment or you aren’t feeling well, have a conversation with your child’s teacher or counselor about what your limitations might be,” she said. “This is new for all of us and there will be struggles and questions along the way for everyone. You are not in this alone so let the school know about your medical condition and the impact it may have on your child at home.”

Turn Off the TV

Spending hours watching the news heightens anxiety and fear and doesn’t serve any productive purpose, Dr. Currier said. Limit TV news time to twice a day ― briefly in the morning and evening. It should be just enough to ensure you know the latest hygiene recommendations or any guidelines for your city.

Practice Mindfulness Techniques

“We can diminish the angst and catastrophic worry in our minds through practicing mindfulness meditation. When we learn to regulate our attention, we can stop the intrusive, repetitive thoughts,” she said.

It takes daily practice to become skilled at meditation. Dr. Currier recommends beginning with two minutes, twice a day, at the same time and place each day. Increase by two minutes each day until you are able to meditate at least 10 minutes twice a day.

Miami Cancer Institute has seen a statistically significant improvement in depression and anxiety in patients who have taken part in an 8-week mindfulness workshop. “For many of my patients this has been transformative,” Dr. Currier said. “But you don’t need to attend a course. You can learn. Start with baby steps daily and consider using one of the guided meditation apps to start.” See the links below.

Join Virtual Programming

At Miami Cancer Institute, many support groups, exercise classes and educational programs have moved to an online platform. There are talks by physicians, cooking demonstrations and recipes, support groups for patients and caregivers and even a yoga with your pup class. Classes are free and open to the community. Subscribe to virtual programming by clicking here. Or go to Miami Cancer Institute, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on “Subscribe Now” under the Join the Community heading.

Because every individual’s circumstance is different, please connect with your oncologist or medical provider for answers to specific questions related to your cancer care. For the latest updates on Baptist Health South Florida and Miami Cancer Institute COVID-19 news, click here.

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