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Dr Paul D’Alton on techniques to cope with anxiety during coronavirus

People living with cancer and their loved ones may be experiencing coronavirus related anxiety very acutely amid the ongoing uncertainty. The Irish Cancer Society spoke to Principal Clinical Psychologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital and Assoc. Professor of Psychology at UCD, Dr Paul D’Alton about coping techniques that may help. 

“People who are living with cancer tend to be a little bit more anxious and feel a bit more vulnerable in the world at the best of times,” Dr D’Alton says.

“They have to take precautions in terms of hygiene, diet and generally minding themselves at the best of times and now we find ourselves in these completely unprecedented, fear-inducing times and our stress volume is turned up.

“The important thing to remember is that this is completely normal. Anxiety is a normal response to an abnormal situation and we are in an abnormal situation. It is to be expected that we would be more worries, frightened or scared,” he adds.

“But there are things that we can do that will help, particularly for people living with cancer and beyond, and their families. And we have a responsibility at this moment to help ourselves, to manage our mind over the next period of time.

“What’s going to get us through this is how we manage our mind and our hearts.”

Dr D’Alton said the best way to ensure we are working to manage our minds is to follow the acronym FAST.

That is:

FAST approach

Focus on what we can control

At times like this we can feel very much out of control, which can lead us to feel hopeless. This is understandable, and can be countered by focusing on what you can do today, according to Dr D’Alton.

This includes focusing on following official advice around good hand and respiratory hygiene, employing social distancing and keeping the house clean.

It can also be helpful, Dr D’Alton suggests, to widen our lens also and focus on what we could be doing to help others, such as reaching out by phone to our friends and family to check in. We could consider writing letters.

Avoid unreliable information and continual updates

There is an unrelenting stream of information coming at us at the moment – both reliable and unreliable.

Dr D’Alton is urging people to employ a 20/20 approach where you take 20 minutes to inform yourself about what is happening in Ireland and around the world from trustworthy, reliable sources and allowing another 20 minutes to discuss the latest information.

But beyond this, Dr D’Alton says, we should be avoiding constant updates and being disciplined about this.

It is also incumbent on all of us to consider what we are sharing on social media.

“Sharing unreliable, sensational and inaccurate information is fueling our anxiety and the anxiety of others,” Dr D’Alton notes.

Seek safe support

Identify the social support networks you rely on and ensure that you are using them safely, such as via technology.

“We know from all of the research across the world that humans don’t cope very well when we are isolated, it is really challenging,” Dr D’Alton says.

“As we move on, particularly for people living with cancer and their families, it’s going to be crucial for people to maintain social support.

“There are all sorts of ways that technology can accommodate this such as Facetime. I’ve heard of people arranging coffee dates over Skype. You can also explore safe, outdoor activity such as walks once social distancing is being safely employed.”

Take a breath

It is crucial to partake in an activity that allows you to take a breath, according to Dr D’Alton.

He says, “We will find that we forget to breathe when we are anxious, so actually doing something every day to settle the nervous system is important.”

There a number of resources for breathing exercises and mindfulness online.

As well as employing the FAST approach it is vital that people also ensure that they are looking after the basics of sleep, exercise and diet Dr D’Alton advises.

“It is really easy to let go of all of the good things that we do to look after ourselves when our routine is upset. Another thing to watch is our alcohol intake which can creep up.

“People should be eating well, looking after our diet and getting exercise even if they do find themselves self-isolating.

“Practicing good sleep hygiene is also important: leave your phone in another room, no TV or other devices an hour before bed. 

“Sometimes these fundamentals can get a bit unsettled and it is important that we ensure we are looking after the basics,” Dr D’Alton added.

If you are caring for a loved one who is affected by cancer encouraging them to take the approach outlined above will help ease their anxiety, but it is also important to look after yourself.

“You can’t drink from an empty cup and as carers we can get depleted so that’s why it is so important that we try to nourish ourselves at this very important time,” Dr D’Alton said.

Understanding the emotional effects of cancer
This booklet has been written to help you to understand the emotional effects of cancer. It has been prepared and checked by medical doctors, other relevant specialists, nurses and patients.