I took a trip to the doctor in March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States. While cases were raging in New York, my coastal Florida city was going on with life as normal, spring break and all.
The hospital was another story.
Masks were required, hand sanitizer was everywhere, and entrances and exits were limited. Hospital personnel were decked out in full hazmat gear, and a large yellow fumigation tunnel was connected to the hospital’s ventilation system.
My trip wasn’t related to COVID-19. I was going to see an endocrinologist for a consultation, blood work, an ultrasound, and a biopsy due to several benign nodules found on my thyroid years ago.
Although routine now, this kind of trip still shakes me up.
On top of that, now the hospital was tense with the stress and fear around the pandemic. Everywhere I looked was like a scene from an apocalyptic movie.
According to the news, a city council member had tested positive for COVID-19 and was being treated at the hospital where I was going for my appointment.
I felt like I was right in the thick of it. My anxiety was through the roof.
These are the tools I use to cope with the stress and fear from doctor’s visits in the era of COVID-19.
If you have anxiety or concerns about COVID-19 protocol, the best thing you can do is talk to your healthcare provider.
Your doctor is likely going through the motions of protocols without giving much thought to the subtle implications for your emotional state.
If you take a moment to let your doctor know that these kinds of procedures are triggering anxiety for you, it gives them the opportunity to adjust their bedside manner.
It may not always work, but it’s worth a try.
We can share our triggers and advocate for ourselves in the name of making our experiences with healthcare workers more human.
In a pandemic or not, it’s important that we address our concerns as patients.
Having the support of a friend or loved one can make all the difference in the world when you have to be in a difficult environment. The doctor’s office is no different.
Although we’re encouraged to go solo right now as much as possible, your mental health comes first.
As long as you’re being safe, wearing masks, and washing hands, having a loved one accompany you to a difficult appointment can be perfectly OK.
If your facility doesn’t allow guests, they may be able to wait in the car for you or meet after for a coffee.
After several biopsies came back benign, I told my doctor I didn’t want to undergo another round. He agreed.
My doctor said there were alternative methods to track the health of my thyroid.
This was a major relief.
It meant I didn’t have to go into medical spaces that frazzled my nervous system, but that I could care for myself at a safe distance from pandemic “ground zero.”
If it isn’t necessary, you don’t have to do it.
It isn’t just regular people who are experiencing COVID-19 anxieties.
Dr. Kris Harley, DO, says doctors must act and work quickly to care for their patients regardless of the risk to their own health.
“We can’t delay care for someone who is critically injured or critically ill just because we don’t know their COVID-19 status for sure,” Harley says. “We have to remember why we’re here. We’re here to take care of patients. We’re here to do our best to… be a conduit for saving lives. That sometimes puts us at risk.”
These kinds of unknowns happening repeatedly on a daily basis are a source of anxiety for doctors like Harley.
“I’ve been up close and personal to a lot. No less than 2 dozen COVID-positive patients. I’m talking about the people who were symptomatic who needed some type of intervention,” says Harley.
Remembering that doctors are likely experiencing some level of anxiety around COVID-19, too, can help to humanize them and make them seem more relatable.
You can even ask them, “How are you holding up during all this?” A simple, empathetic question like that has the potential to disarm even the most gruff healthcare professional and let them know you care too.
To that end, focusing on what you can do to feel safe and to ensure the safety of others is a way to channel your anxious energy.
Focusing on doing your part can help you feel more in control and engaged in solutions. Instead of feeling powerless, working hard to stop the spread can give you a sense of purpose.
Danielle Porte, a stay-at-home mom in suburban Chicago, shares that during a recent trip to her chiropractor’s office she noticed a different kind of COVID-19 protocol.
“The front desk receptionist… went to take my temperature, and she asked me for my elbow,” Porte says. “I didn’t understand and she said, ‘Just extend your arm and I’ll take your temperature.’ I looked at her and said, ‘Huh, I didn’t know you could take your temperature there.’”
The difference in accuracy between the elbow and the forehead for a temperature check is a tenth of a degree.
Porte learned that the office started using elbow temperature checks as a way to decrease anxiety triggers for patients who have experiences with gun violence.
This was part of an effort to make the office environment more inclusive for people from all backgrounds and life experiences.
Porte said the explanation was an “aha” moment.
In the time of COVID-19, where gun violence is on the rise nationwide, people who have gun-related trauma may automatically have anxiety when going to the hospital.
This is especially important to consider for children who undergo mandated temperature checks daily in order to attend school.
“Children, especially those who might live in communities where gun violence is more prevalent, are now on the daily going to their safe place but having a behavior executed on them that can be incredibly triggering and damaging,” says Porte.
If schools can make small changes like taking temperatures on the elbow, many children can be spared the anxiety of feeling as though a gun is being pointed at their forehead.
Becoming aware of the triggers that others may have that are different from your own can help you focus on empathy rather than fear.
It’s also a reminder that, though we may have different triggers, we’re all in the same boat.
As COVID-19 deaths in the United States continue to surge, the coming flu season may put more strain on the already taxed healthcare system.
Harley suggests the best way for all of us to feel more secure, despite our anxieties, is to continue to persevere. We must be vigilant to not give ourselves over to quarantine fatigue, even if others we know are getting lax.
“My advice to everyone is to continue to endure, continue to remain safe… this is not a game, it’s not a hoax,” Harley says.
This time is a challenge for everyone, especially those who experience anxiety around medical procedures.
Remember to be kind to yourself and do what you need to feel safe while continuing to take steps to stop the spread.
With just a little bit of compassion toward yourself and those around you, you can find ways to ease anxiety even in the midst of uncertainty.
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award–winning news producer and author. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Her latest novel, “Beyond Bourbon Street,” was released in August 2020. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.