COVID19 is a dangerous adversary and everyone is discussing how stressful they are finding living in the age of COVID19.
There have been many excellent recommendations on how to reduce stress. Many of these recommendations have focused on stress reduction strategies like exercise.
Given my area is mental health, I would like to add to the conversations on stress by presenting a different lens.
First, let’s talk about what stress is and is not, because to tackle something one must always know what one is getting into the ring with.
In 1936, biologist Hans Selye described a common physiological response in rats subjected to harmful factors and he named this the stress response. “The main features of the syndrome were suppression of the immune system, ulceration of the lining of the stomach and small intestine, and activation of the two … stress-response systems.”
Over the last 80 years, there has been extensive documentation of the widespread damage of stress on our body and brain.
So stress doesn’t just feel bad - it is really bad for you. Reducing stress can save your life and a sense of control is the one way cortisol and other factors provoked by stress can be reduced and the health impacts minimized.
What is crucial is that stress is not just bad things happening to you – it is bad things happening with a sense of having no control over these things.
You might be thinking: if control is crucial to managing stress, how on earth can you control a global outbreak of a virus? How can we control not only the illnesses and deaths but also the economic consequences on such a large scale. Control? It seems like a rather ludicrous word in the face of all this.
All true points. Thank you for making them.
My answer is to introduce some people whom I have known that belong to “The Greatest Generation”- those who lived through World War II. They earned their name because of their tenacity and 'can do' attitude. They did not enter the war with these attitudes but, rather, they were forged by the hardships they faced.
My father-in-law, Bill, and his twin brother were pilots in World War II. Bill’s brother died when his plane went down in Europe and he was never able to speak of him again – it was as if the grief of his loss had torn out his heart. Bill went on to get an engineering degree, marry, have children and live a life of laughter and love.
My mother-in-law, Verna, stayed home and helped in many ways the war effort. She told me stories of how they would try to get butter to make her beloved pastries, how they would save things so they could send packages to those who were fighting along with letters. The volume of letters diminished over time because many of the young men she grew up with died.
Neither of them had any ability to stop the war or save those they loved. Both were irreparably broken by the losses they sustained. Both walked into life after the war with a strong stride. They survived the war by small acts and large ones that were all acts of resistance. Bill was a man who embraced competence – taking care of his family and being the one who got things done – and Verna was loving, taking everyone under her wing. Perhaps those characteristics were their tribute to those they lost and a way to ensure that they would keep those around them safe.
Let me introduce you to Lili. She was Jewish and was sent away from her parents as a small child into hiding. She lost her parents and everyone in her family. I learned later that she had anxiety and many difficulties all her life in response to this, but what I remember about her was that she was one of the kindest people I have ever known. If the world robs you of so much through cruelty, kindness is the ultimate act of defiance.
None of them had control over global events that ended up at their door. What they did was to take control during and after in small and large ways. Ultimately, their characters are a testament to how they became known as the greatest generation, because it was not what they endured but how they endured it that defined them.
Back to COVID19. We have no control over when we will have a vaccine and this nightmare will end. However, the reality is that we have never had control over large global events and this is no different. What we do have control over is our small corner of this planet and that is where we fight.
Much has been discussed about the courage and tenacity of my colleagues during COVID19. When I speak with them, they talk about doing what they have always done; medicine with the patient in front of them. They read voraciously about this virus, they consult others for more information, they organize their homes to have decontamination zones to keep their family safe and do many other things to manage their corner of the planet.
Many of my non-medical friends are reading and watching the news to educate themselves, they are designing new ways to get groceries safely and clean them down. They are reaching out to friends and family to inform them, check up on them and laugh with them.
When we talk about the new normal – it is the ability of each of us to have small and large acts of defiance and resistance to keep those we love safe.
We will not recover without scars. We can only hope to minimize the number we lose and comfort those who have lost people. There will be anguish: times when we wake up in the middle of the night drenched in fear. When we emerge from this - we can do so with a character forged by how we responded to COVID and how we controlled our corner of the world.