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Why We Need to Know About Post-Traumatic Growth

In spite of COVID, research informs us of the choice to build a better future.

David Wirzba/Unsplash
Source: David Wirzba/Unsplash

While COVID-19 dominates our attention and resources, creating conflicts and unity, revealing the best and the worst human behaviors, uncertainty persists, and there are legitimate concerns about the toll this pandemic is taking—physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Despite knowing that this will not last forever, it may also be helpful to consider that there is a time after this when this moment will be in our history.

Still, in the midst of trauma, it is easy to feel lost, to negatively ruminate, and to see life as unfair. This awareness of our complete vulnerability and lack of control in all things is unsettling. It's natural to feel terrible and to experience strongly negative emotions. It's easy to feel alone and isolated. There is the potential to develop post-traumatic stress reactions, which can persist and lead to functional impairment, sleep disturbance, and vivid flashbacks, known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many people understand that trauma can be destructive and can make life more difficult, but there is another side to the story. The benefits of overcoming difficulties can be widespread but less recognized. Marshaling our resources and mastering challenges can build confidence, develop resilience, and build skills that will help us create a better life.

Unlike the destructive effects of PTSD, the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG) is defined as positive psychological transformation following a traumatic experience, a transformation resulting from personal growth both during and after extraordinary difficult times. PTG is about finding meaning and learning lessons in the aftermath of traumatic and stressful circumstances, and it may be the best way we can imagine the future for ourselves once COVID-19 is over. It should be noted that post-traumatic growth is not mutually exclusive with post-traumatic stress disorder. However, a sole focus on post-traumatic stress symptoms has been shown to limit the possibilities for post-traumatic growth.

The concept of post-traumatic growth is not new. In 1996, clinical psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun published a method to measure post-traumatic growth, which considers five domains: an appreciation of life, improved interpersonal relationships, seeing possibilities in life, spiritual connectedness, and personal strength and empowerment. Since then, many other researchers have demonstrated and measured post-traumatic growth in various circumstances, including in individuals diagnosed with infections like HIV, cancer, or a chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes; stroke caregivers; and survivors of natural disasters and sexual violence.

One review, by social psychologists Eranda Jayawickreme and Laura Blackie from Wake Forest University, found as many as 70 percent of people who experienced trauma reported that they experienced post-traumatic growth or improvement in at least one area of life, as a result of stress or trauma:

1. They appreciate life more.

2. They are closer to the people they care about.

3. They are more empowered, stronger.

4. They are more connected to spiritual life.

5. They can see more possibilities in their lives.

In studying similarities in people who reported post-traumatic growth, there were four factors: an awareness or belief that there is an opportunity for growth, seeking the lesson, finding the meaning of the experience, and sharing it with another person.

Some objections to PTG question whether there is genuine growth, or whether the person just thinks there is growth. Though it is difficult to objectively differentiate whether a traumatic experience has resulted in absolute improvements in areas of life that are difficult to quantify, like gratitude, subjective feelings of well-being correlate with physiological findings consistent with well-being. This suggests that self-reported improvement is likely an accurate measure of growth, although more research is needed.

To be sure, trauma should not be minimized or justified. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to process trauma, and there should be no judgment about individual responses. As we struggle in the midst of COVID-19, so much is yet unclear and still changing. We are not in the post-traumatic mindset, because we are still in the middle of the trauma, and we cannot know what will happen to any one of us.

While we may not be able to see the other side of this crisis, knowing that a substantial majority of all people surveyed experienced post-traumatic growth is encouraging and offers hope. We can be intentional about allowing for post-traumatic growth.

We can’t always control what life throws at us, so we have to control how we understand it. We can focus on building PTG. In other words:

1. Reflect on the situation knowing PTG is possible.

2. Think about what can be learned from the experience.

3. Look for meaning in it.

4. Get social support. Connect with people you trust and share your feelings with each other.

This is a time of great crisis and uncertainty. But it is possible to imagine a future in which we are stronger and wiser having survived it.