What constitutes trauma or adversity? Essentially anything that causes physical or psychological pain or injury. This includes personal illness or injury, witnessing the same in someone else, natural disasters, enduring abuse, the death of someone close to us, job loss, addiction, financial problems, relationship difficulties, and incarceration. The range and magnitude of trauma is vast. And, yes, it includes what just about everyone has been going through for the past three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that our world has experienced massive trauma due to Covid-19. There have been over one million deaths from COVID in the United States alone and almost seven million deaths world-wide. The amount of people experiencing symptoms from long COVID is substantial and will become even more evident as more time goes by.
Many millions of people have suffered loss of employment, reduced work hours, vastly changed work situations, or concern about the viability of their jobs down the line, given our rapidly changing culture in the face of the pandemic.
Physical distancing, while imperative to reduce viral transmission, has led many people to feel socially isolated, which can contribute to depression and anxiety, given that we are interdependent beings. Although the lethality of COVID appears to be lessening and many people are resuming lives close to what they led prior to the pandemic, the impact of the past three years cannot be erased.
At the same time, there is the possibility that we can emerge from this and other adversities actually better off psychologically, physically, and spiritually than we were beforehand. Some people even say that they’re grateful, not that the trauma occurred, but for the deep introspection and enduring changes it brought about within them.
For instance, at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, members will often refer to themselves as “grateful recovering alcoholics”. Hitting rock-bottom can motivate us to discard or at least reevaluate many, if not all, of our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. As a result, we can undergo a significant transformation which can significantly change us in ways which might not otherwise have occurred.
According to research (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996), post-traumatic growth generally manifests in five main areas:
Appreciation of life. We don’t take our life so much for granted. We are grateful for the “little things” (which actually aren’t all that little). We get off auto-pilot and find joy in everyday occurrences.
Improved relationships with others. We enjoy richer and more fulfilling connections with other people. We become more compassionate and feel closer emotionally to others. We place greater importance on our relationships and allocate our time and energy accordingly.
Seeing and participating in new possibilities. We become more motivated to go after experiences and goals that are personally meaningful to us. We expand our horizons and reconsider dreams that we may have put on the back burner.
Greater personal strength. We develop and recognize our resilience. We recognize that we can in fact deal with great difficulty, which gives us confidence that we can cope with the next challenge that comes along. We feel more comfortable in our own skin.
Spiritual growth and change. We take a closer look at what we deem our life’s purpose. We gain clarity on how we fit into the bigger scheme of things. We find a deeper sense of peace within ourselves and in our connection with the universe, God, or however we define a Higher Power.
What increases the chances of post-traumatic growth?
Openness to experience. When we try to keep an open mind, we’re more apt to question our current belief systems, rather than clinging tenaciously to our usual modus operandi. Instead of becoming defensive when asked the question, “How’s that working for you?”, we can engage in honest self-inventory and recognize where and when we could change and grow. In this time of COVID, when our everyday routines have been significantly disrupted, we have the opportunity to practice creative ways of dealing with our altered reality.
Extroversion. When our tendency is to reach out to other people rather than go it alone, we can avail ourselves of their support and feedback. Social support is key in overcoming adversity. If you consider yourself to be an introvert, no worries. You don’t need to enjoy huge, boisterous parties in order to connect with other people. Some of us just prefer to take our social contacts one person at a time. Even if we’re staying at home most of the time, making phone calls, engaging in video chats, and emailing and texting people are all possible.
Spirituality. This may or may not take the form of organized religion. Studies have shown that the sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that the belief that the state of our soul and character matter just as much as anything else, are highly correlated with post-traumatic growth. A regular meditation practice and commitment to mindful living can benefit us if we choose to grow spiritually.
Acceptance. Some situations are just not within our control. Of course, we are best served by taking action if and where we can. However, the extent to which we can accept the unchangeable and learn to adapt, is powerfully correlated with post-traumatic growth. As has been said, “what we resist, persists”. If we rail against reality and those forces beyond our control, we cause additional and needless suffering to ourselves (and usually those around us). By contrast, if we choose acceptance, we are able to focus our energy on what is within our control (namely our thoughts, attitudes, choices, and behaviors).
Not that post-traumatic growth occurs without pain. In fact, such growth does not occur without finding ourselves in circumstances (whether of our own making or by external forces) which pose an extreme challenge to us and to what we hold dear. Things can often seem to get worse before they get better. When it comes to post-traumatic growth, the adage “No pain, no gain” holds true.
However, there is also the opportunity to grow into a person and a life beyond our wildest dreams. Remember, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly” (Chuang Tzu). When handled, well, our greatest problem can become our greatest gift.