Addressing Clients’ Coronavirus Anxiety: Best Practices for Therapists

Mar 13, 2020

By Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW

Every day we are inundated with news about the spread of the novel coronavirus, a highly transmissible respiratory illness also referred to as COVID-19. Understandably, people are feeling anxious about this news—mental health care providers and their clients alike.

We are all responsible for our own health and the health of our families first. But as a mental health care provider, you may face the additional challenge of responding to clients worried about their physical and mental health. Here, we aim to give you some answers, as well as practical tactics to use in conversations about the coronavirus.

Start with the facts

For the sake of your own health and your clients’ health, seek out reliable information about the coronavirus. It can be particularly helpful to put those facts into context alongside other, more familiar illnesses, like the flu. 

Coronavirus is a contagious respiratory illness that as of March 13, had infected more than 132,000 people around the world, with more than 1,200 confirmed cases in the United States, including 36 deaths. Also as of March 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that for most Americans, the immediate risk of being exposed to coronavirus is still low. 

Discuss media consumption

Encourage your clients to seek out reliable, evidence-based information about the coronavirus as opposed to news from online message boards or YouTube videos. Health misinformation online isn’t always easy to spot, so you might suggest that they rely on one or two reliable resources, such as the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO).

For some clients, you may suggest that they limit their health news or social media consumption if it is causing undue stress without providing any additional utility. For example, once they’ve chosen a single reliable resource like the WHO, they could limit checking that resource to no more than a few minutes a day. You might also advise that they avoid checking the news before bedtime.

Stick to the basics

The current epidemic serves as a reminder to follow the same guidelines that protect us from illnesses like the common cold and seasonal flu year-round. There’s been plenty of coverage of the rush to purchase face masks, for example, even though experts don’t recommend them for most healthy people. Instead, follow the World Health Organization guidelines, including:

  • Regularly and thoroughly cleaning your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or with soap and water. How long should a “thorough” cleaning last? Sing “Happy Birthday” quietly to yourself, twice. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. 
  • Cover your mouth with your bent elbow or with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. 
  • Limit contact with others if you’re not feeling well or they’re feeling unwell. That includes maintaining at least a 3-foot distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. 

Explore what “reasonable” precautions entail

While you should encourage your clients to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves, that means you may need to discuss what “reasonable” looks like. Someone could take every precaution in the world and still get sick. Or, they could do nothing and stay healthy. But as with most things, the most effective route is somewhere in the middle. Look out for signs that your client is more focused on controlling their anxiety than following the recommended guidelines to protect their health. 

Watch out for thinking traps

Once your clients are operating on good information and taking reasonable precautions, it may be useful to explore thinking traps that could be involved. Thinking traps include common cognitive errors such as probability overestimation, catastrophizing, or black-and-white thinking. If a client’s reaction to the coronavirus reminds you of how they respond to other stressors in their life, consider whether you’re witnessing a larger pattern of ineffective worrying that may be worth exploring further.

Validate their feelings

Remind your clients that anxiety serves a purpose: to warn us about potential threats. The coronavirus is a real threat–as is the common cold–but that doesn’t mean it’s as hazardous as our fears lead us to believe. We want our clients to pay attention to anxiety without always needing to listen to it, especially if it’s prompting them to take extreme steps that disregard expert guidance. No matter what we do, there will always be some risk and uncertainty. One of the most powerful things we can offer our clients is to help them learn to live with uncertainty while still investing in the things they care about.

The coronavirus outbreak is likely far from over. The next few weeks and months will bring changing conditions, evolving statistics, and more questions from clients. Be prepared with facts and reliable sources, which can you employ alongside your knowledge of each client.

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself. As a provider, you face added pressure not only to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy, but to support the mental health of your clients. That can be a lot. Talk to your fellow providers in consultation groups, keep up self-care routines such as exercise or practicing mindfulness, and seek out more support if you need it.

 

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DISCLAIMER:

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW, is clinical manager of the Mental Health Coaching Program and a therapist in the Blended Care Therapy Program at Lyra Health. He serves on the board of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, and provides training and supervision in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).