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How to cope with COVID-19

May 07, 2020


The spread of COVID-19 has led to a public health crisis and created major disruptions in daily life. Many people are experiencing anxiety and depression over concerns ranging from the health and safety of loved ones to economic woes and how to cope with long periods of isolation.

“The fluidity of the situation has left many feeling anxious and uncertain,” said Masey Ross, M.D., M.S., Massey medical oncologist and medical director of the Integrative Health program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “During this time, please remember to take care of your physical, spiritual and emotional self.”

While many of Massey’s ongoing Integrative Health workshops and classes are postponed during the pandemic, virtual offerings have been created, and there are numerous resources available to help individuals manage distress.

Mindfulness is one of the most effective coping techniques and it can be practiced anywhere, according to Susan Chandler, Ph.D., RN-BC, nurse program coordinator of Massey’s Integrative Health program.

“Speaking for myself, practicing mindfulness has become more important than ever as I try to stay in the present and not let my mind spiral,” said Chandler. “With all of the information about COVID-19 coming to us from so many different angles, it may be helpful to quiet the mind by focusing on your breath first, before you begin a mindfulness exercise.”

Chandler advises taking deep, cleansing breaths throughout the day to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and replace anxiety with a sense of calm.

“Becoming aware of your breath gives your mind somewhere to focus, rather than sitting quietly while your brain is bouncing all over the place,” she said. “When thoughts appear, acknowledge them and return to your breath.”

Here is a basic breathing exercise that Chandler recommends:
● Breath in slowly to the count of three and pause.
● Place a hand on your lower abdomen and concentrate on feeling it expand as you inhale.
● Exhale to the count of four and pause.
● Repeat as many times as desired. Keep returning to your breath.
● Some people find it helpful to follow the breath as they inhale, feeling the coolness as the air enters the nose and noticing the warmth as they exhale.

Massey social worker Freda Wilkins, M.S.W., M. Div., also stresses the importance of practicing mindfulness and moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.

“I think when we approach our emotions in a mindful way, it builds resilience,” said Wilkins. “One of the ways to do that is to practice self-compassion. By being aware of our experiences and the feelings that we have during them, we become equipped to emotionally and physically maintain over a period of time.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilkins hosted regular mindfulness sessions for cancer patients at Massey. In the interim, she has created a video demonstrating a mindfulness exercise that can be practiced at home. 

Wilkins also emphasizes the importance of physical activity in reducing anxiety and depression. Most physicians agree that regular amounts of modest exercise can benefit cancer patients mentally and physically.

A virtual version of The RAMble, Massey’s monthly walking event, will be held on Saturday, May 16 at 8:30 am. Individuals are invited to watch an online talk by a VCU Health practitioner and then walk at their own pace wherever they are located. The talk can be accessed on Zoom here by using meeting ID 980 5553 5212 or calling 877-853-5247.

Yoga is another low-impact exercise option for individuals of all fitness levels, and research shows that it can relieve depression and stress as well as the side effects of cancer treatment. While Massey’s yoga classes for cancer patients and survivors are currently postponed, the Integrative Health website has a library of free yoga videos available for at-home practice.

Additionally, Wilkins recommends staying connected socially by reaching out to friends and family. In place of in-person meetings, Wilkins is hosting a bi-weekly online support group for women impacted by cancer.

“We’re doing virtual support groups and we work together to create community with people who are ‘walking the same walk’,” said Wilkins.

The group meets every other Monday at 6 pm and the next session is on May 11. Participants can join on Zoom here by using meeting ID 237 807 7884 or calling 877-853-5247.

Massey’s Integrative Health program is working to add more virtual resources in the future. In the meantime, Ross encourages everyone to continue focusing on their own personal wellness.

“As we move through this challenging time, remember to give yourself grace,” said Ross. “Consider taking some time to reflect on what’s truly important to you. Are there changes you can make in your life to make you more whole? Breathe and take it one day at a time.”

For more information on Massey’s Integrative Health program, call 804-828-8478 or visit

Written by: Melissa Mitchell

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