Trauma

Post-Traumatic Growth and COVID-19

Turn this challenge into meaningful growth with one easy exercise.

Posted May 26, 2020

Photo by Nacho Juárez from Pexels
Growth
Source: Photo by Nacho Juárez from Pexels

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger." —Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s premature to be talking about “post-COVID-19.” Yet, as we begin opening up, I am thinking about our future. Specifically, how to move forward into the next chapter of Life With Coronavirus in a manner that properly honors this experience. How can we reopen without mindlessly returning to a world of busyness and losing sight of the lessons of this pandemic?

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a concept coined by psychologists Robert Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s, defined as a “positive psychological change in the wake of struggling with highly challenging life circumstances” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004.) PTG occurs when a traumatic experience becomes a catalyst for positive change. PTG is a fairly well-known phenomenon and long-recognized in various religious traditions, but it is often overlooked in discussions of trauma.

The potential of PTG goes far beyond simple self-improvement or “making the best" of a bad situation. Interviewed in 2012, Robert Tedeschi said, “It is crucial to understand that PTG does not make everything all better; it does not make all the stress disappear. But it can bring true meaning to a person’s life. PTG forces us to focus on bigger questions — questions and concepts about wisdom, virtue, and values.” 

PTG research demonstrates that trauma can help define our character and clarify our purpose on Earth. It can lead us into passions and pursuits that positively impact the world around us. For example, a person who survives a sexual assault may go on to become a therapist specializing in sexual trauma or a volunteer at a women's shelter. 

PTG is available to any of us, though certain features make some of us more likely than others to experience it. For starters, a more serious hardship or trauma (e.g., life-threatening illness) offers greater potential for PTG than a minor difficulty (e.g., fender bender.) But just knowing about PTG makes it more likely — so if you’ve even read this far, you are on the path! The other critical feature that facilitates PTG is a willingness to reflect on (rather than avoid thinking about) the trauma or hardship. 

Indeed, it is our capacity for sitting with an experience of emotional pain that opens the PTG door. This is perhaps why this theory resonates with me — it really captures the spirit and benefits of Buddhist psychology, which also encourages us to approach, rather than avoid, life’s painful and difficult realities. 

To what extent this pandemic can be rightly called a "trauma" for you may not be clear for some time; we are still in the midst of it. But now is the best time to begin thinking about PTG — before we are thrown back into the bustle of life as we knew it before. 

In order to grow from this experience, we must acknowledge the difficulty of this ordeal. We must sit with the death toll, the loss of livelihoods and prized businesses, the utter chaos and exhaustion of our front-line healthcare workers. And we must pause and sit with the lessons that resonate most with us personally. 

If you are ready now to set the stage for PTG, I offer you the following reflection exercise, based on a survey called The Post Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI, Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) which psychologists use to evaluate positive outcomes following a trauma. PTGI survey items cluster around five factors: Relating to Others, New Possibilities, Personal Strength, Spiritual Change, and Appreciation of Life. 

In this exercise, we will begin to foster PTG by reflecting on each of the PTGI domains as they have influenced our COVID-19 experiences so far. As you do so, I encourage you to invite growth to happen naturally in the areas where you have been authentically changed by this experience. 

We will each find salience in certain areas but not others; therefore, you might find it helpful to pick just one area for reflection, after reading the description of each. To get the most benefit, I suggest you write down thoughts and ideas that arise as you reflect or discuss your observations, feelings, and questions with supportive, open-minded individuals. 

Finally, I suggest bringing a spirit of curiosity and acceptance, rather than judgment, as you explore the following questions. Know that your perspective will change with time and you can and always revisit these questions when you are ready, as it may yet be too soon. 

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels
Reflection
Source: Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

Relating to Others

Sample Item from PTGI: I more clearly see that I can count on people in times of trouble. 

This domain refers to our sense of connection to our family, friends, and community. Many of us have experienced kindness from neighbors, increased (albeit virtual) opportunities to catch up with friends and family, and a renewed sense of connection to our community, thanks to COVID-19. To explore gains made in this area, consider the following questions:

  • To whom do I feel most connected now? Why? How can I maintain this increased closeness when life returns to normal(ish)?
  • How has this experience enhanced my connection to my community? 
  • How can I contribute to those who have helped me during this time? 

New Possibilities

Sample Item from PTGI: I am more likely to try to change things that need changing. 

As life has changed, certain opportunities have been foreclosed, while others have materialized. To make the most of the new possibilities that exist for you, consider the following questions:

  • What types of personal and professional possibilities are on your radar that weren't a couple months ago?
  • What professional opportunities have arisen/may soon arise thanks to a changing economy? Are there professional aspirations that you shelved in the past that could be revisited now?
  • What have you learned about yourself personally during this time? Where is there continued room for improvement in your journey? 

Personal Strength

Sample Item from PTGI:  I have a greater feeling of self-reliance.

Challenges test our strength, offering opportunities to build our capacities and emerge more confident and capable than before. As you explore growth you have made or can make moving forward, consider these questions:

  • How have you shown strength during this time? What are you proud of? 
  • How do you see yourself differently than you did just two months ago?
  • In what areas would you like to gain more personal strength?

Spiritual Change

Sample Item from PTGI:  I have a better understanding of spiritual matters.

Existential threats bring to the fore questions about life and death, the purpose of our existence, living life with meaning, etc. These questions can lead to an enhanced sense of spiritual connection and appreciation for your brief, precious time on Earth. Questions to contemplate in this domain are:

  • In what new ways do I appreciate the opportunity to live this life, in light of my experience with the coronavirus? 
  • How has this experience enhanced my understanding of my purpose on Earth?

Appreciation of Life

Sample Item from PTGI:  I have a greater appreciation for the value of my own life.

At the time of this writing, just over 100,000 Americans have died. It is only through our good fortune that we are reading this today, still alive. To pause here in appreciation, ask yourself:

  • How can I do right by the opportunity I have been given to live this life? How can I live in a way that honors those who lost their lives due to COVID-19?
  • What facets of life can I now appreciate more fully, thanks to this experience? How can I actually show this enhanced appreciation in the way that I live my life? 

I hope you find this exercise helpful on your journey toward “post-COVID” wellness. Wishing you and yours health and safety in the days ahead.

References

Tedeschi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, 455- 471.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18.