As a department chief managing during this crisis, everyone greets me sympathetically: “This must be so stressful for you! Are you doing OK?” “Um, I’m great,” I answer contritely. Yes, this is hard, yet I feel fine. But why? Shouldn’t I be fretting the damage done by the COVID cyclone? Our operations are smashed and our staff scrambled, my family and friends are out of work; these are difficult times. But a harmful effect on my health or yours is not inevitable. There are things we can do to inoculate ourselves.
No doubt, exercise (if you can find weights!), eating well, sleeping, and meditating help, but they are secondary. None of these protect much if you still believe stress is killing you. You must first reframe what is happening. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, from Stanford (Calif.) University, is a world expert on this topic. If you’ve not seen her TED talk about stress, then watch it now. She teaches how stress is indeed harmful to your health – but only if you believe it to be so. Many studies have borne this out. One showed that people who reported high stress in the previous year were 43% more likely to die than those who did not. But that risk held only when they believed stress was harmful to them. Those who did not think that stress was harmful not only fared better but also had the lowest likelihood of death, lower even than those who reported little stress! So it wasn’t the stress that mattered, it was the physiologic response to it. And that you can control.
Changing your beliefs is no easy feat. There is work to be done, Dr. McGonigal would argue. You must not only reframe our stress as healthful, but also act in ways to make this true. This is easier for us as physicians. First, we understand better than most that difficulty is a normal part of life. We have countless stories of hardship, tragedy, pain and suffering from the work we do. The pandemic may be extraordinary in breadth, but not in depth. We’ve seen worse happen to patients. Second, we have firsthand experience that suffering ends and often leads to strength and resilience. Even in our own lives, it was by traveling through the extraordinary stress of medical school and residency that we arrived here.
Cortisol increases when we are under duress. So does oxytocin. The former gets most of the press, the latter is more interesting. That oxytocin release during stress conferred survival benefits to us as a species: When a threat arrived, we not only ran, but also grabbed the kids, too! Oxytocin is the “tend and befriend” compliment to cortisol’s “fight or flight.” Focusing on this priming to strengthen social ties, listen, spend (Zoom) time together, and provide emotional support is key to our recovery. Even small acts of giving for our staff, friends, family, and strangers can significantly shift consequences of this stress from harmful to beneficial.
Last year, my uncle died in a tragic accident. My aunt, who is alone, is now also isolated. She’s lost her partner, her guardian, and she is afraid. Rather than succumb to the stress, she imagined something she could do to wrest some control. Last week, she filled her minivan with pink and yellow tulips bunched in bouquets and tied with handwritten notes of encouragement. She then drove up and down the streets in her North Attleboro, Mass., neighborhood and left the flowers on doorsteps until her van was empty. She did so to share with them the bit of joy that spring brings, she says, and to encourage people to stay inside!
This is a difficult time for us, and yet even more difficult for others. Perhaps the best we can do is to find ways to bring a bit of joy or comfort to others.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” – Viktor Frankl
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. He had no relevant disclosures. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at email@example.com.