I had been appreciating Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress long before the coronavirus, or COVID-19, made its appearance. I pulled the book out again this week because I knew it would be helpful.
Our lives have been turned upside down in the past weeks because of the virus, and all of us are struggling to find our footing. The world of COVID-19 has the same surreal quality as after 911, with constant news reports and a climbing death rate recorded each day. We have gotten information about how to protect ourselves as much as possible through self-quarantining, physical distancing from others, isolation, and, for health care provides, personal protective equipment that enables them to keep treating those who are ill. Even for those of us who aren’t yet ill, there is the vicarious trauma of seeing what is happening and worrying about its impact for all of us.
McGonigal’s book offers a number of ways to cope, in particular by recognizing that we get to be at choice with how we respond, even if we didn’t choose the virus itself. The main thesis of The Upside of Stress is that stress is only damaging when we believe it is. There is another way to see and experience stress, and to leverage its benefits. And that is to tell the story of stress differently—as something that can enable us to grow, individually and collectively.
McGonigal’s book is incredibly readable and energizing, with stories and examples of research, personal experiences, and even neuroscience concepts that offer a counter-intuitive take on stress. Not only is stress not always a negative, she promises, it can actually be a positive. According to McGonigle, experiencing stress offers a path for fully engaging with our experiences and becoming more courageous, caring, and compassionate as a result. When we reach out to connect with others (while maintaining safe physical distance right now), it not only helps them but enhances our own resilience. When we share and listen to stories of what others are doing to help, we experience vicarious resilience. The only barrier is our unwillingness to connect and feel empathy with one another. In a time of great uncertainty, McGonigal’s book reminds us that there is every reason to hope for the best, and that there are things each of us can do to make that likelihood a reality.