What Is Post-Traumatic Growth and Coping in a Pandemic?
Go beyond the psychobabble and learn evidence-based coping strategies.
Posted Apr 02, 2020
There is a lot of advice floating around these days, and a self-help narrative is emerging in the United States: We are going to emerge from this period of social distancing as better people. The goals are endless: we are going to learn gratitude, to improve our relationships, and learn new skills.
But let’s face it, us immediately emerging from this time wiser, fitter, more loving and refreshed is pretty unlikely. That’s not how post-traumatic growth works for most people. In addition, this notion sets up many Americans who are already struggling with anxiety, depression, loneliness, financial pressures, abuse, and chronic health issues up for failure. Depending on your life history and current stressors, the current pandemic may be a frightening disruption to your daily life, or it may be downright traumatic.
If you are struggling right now, here are five facts and five strategies that may be useful in the weeks and months ahead:
1) If you have struggled with anxiety in your life, this pandemic may make your symptoms worse in the short term. For example, if you already struggle with feelings of panic or fear of leaving your house (agoraphobia), it is very normal for those symptoms to increase in a time of such uncertainty. Similarly, if you struggle with obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors (for example, the need to check things, a fear of germs), you may be experiencing an increase in those symptoms.
2) If you struggle with depression or feeling lonely, you may find this time particularly difficult. The lack of a routine and predictability may feel overwhelming, especially since structure helps most of us feel grounded. You may feel additional pressure when you see social media pictures that show people bonding with their families or loved ones.
3) If you have a history of traumatic events in your past (e.g., sexual abuse, physical assault) the uncertainty of what is going to happen next may be particularly difficult for you. In addition, feeling powerless may be re-triggering trauma-related memories from your past. You may also be in a position where you currently don’t feel safe at home. It’s very difficult to plan for how you are going to keep yourself safe from a virus when your immediate safety is at risk.
4) If you are dealing with a chronic illness, you may find that your day to day routine was already stressful enough. In addition to the stressors you were already dealing with, now you have to worry that grocery shopping and going to the doctor’s office might not be safe. You may be extremely worried about how this pandemic is going to affect your mental and physical health.
5) If you were already struggling with unhealthy coping methods (e.g., drinking too much, substance abuse, overeating), you may feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions right now. You may be wondering how you are going to get the support you need. Perhaps the online jokes about people gaining weight or drinking too much while social distancing feel personally dismissive or stigmatizing.
The narrative of continual self-improvement can be harmful. We live in a culture where we are trained to run away from negative emotions. Often we want to “skip to the end,” where a person emerges victorious and strong. Unfortunately, our mental health doesn’t work that way.
Resilience is often defined as the ability to get back to our daily routines (or in this case, potentially create a new daily routine) after stressful situations. Post-traumatic growth is defined as the deeper psychological and spiritual meaning that people may find after they experienced trauma. This may involve community service, activism, or many other ways to find purpose—and even joy—after a traumatic event. Resilience can take months, even years. Post-traumatic growth can take a lifetime.
Again, if you are struggling, don’t feel defeated by the psychobabble. In the near future, very few people will be emerging as fitter, calmer, wiser individuals. Many Americans will be struggling, but most of us will be able to return to some kind of baseline functioning with some time. In the meantime, our pandemic goals don’t need to focus on thriving; perhaps our goals should focus on surviving.
Luckily, evidence-based interventions for trauma and anxiety have several specific strategies that may be useful for all of us in the weeks and months ahead:
1) If you are already struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, or chronic illness, realize that it is perfectly normal for you to have an increase in your symptoms in the short-term. This may be a time where you need more help. If you are currently in an unsafe situation, please don’t struggle alone. Even in times of social distancing, there is still help for you. Some resources are listed below.
2) Challenge your thinking. If you catch yourself falling into the trap that there is a “perfect” way to cope with a pandemic, try to look at this thought differently. Maybe the goal isn’t to become a better person. Perhaps it is just to get through the next day or the next hour as best as you can. Accept the fact that some relationships will continue to be challenging. Your relationships will still change from day to day, just like they always have.
3) Allow yourself to express and experience negative emotions. Our tendency to push back against negative emotions actually tends to increase their intensity. Learning to sit with suffering is an extremely difficult concept, but it’s one of the best things we can do for our mental health—as individuals and as a country. One technique to try is to raise your hand when you begin to feel a strong emotion, like grief, anger, sadness, or anxiety. Just allow yourself to feel it, and don’t try to distract yourself. Take deep breaths. Just allow yourself to experience your emotion. As the emotion loses its intensity, you can start to put your hand down. You may notice that negative emotions don’t last forever—instead, they come and go like waves.
4) Keep a log of your coping methods and see if they are impairing your ability to function. Keeping track of our habits (also known as self-monitoring) is a powerful behavior change tool. For example, if you are having a cocktail a few times a week while talking to your friends on the phone, that’s fine. If you are drinking every night to try to fall asleep, only to awaken in the middle of the night, that may be a problem. Try to seek out online resources to help you cope. A few resources are listed below.
5) Don’t attempt resilience and post-traumatic growth now—it’s not possible. We have not yet begun to experience the full impact of this pandemic. The physical, emotional, and financial costs are going to be with us for a long time. There will be opportunities to grow, change, and learn lessons. But now is the time for us to get through the actual event. Now is the time to stay safe, try to breathe, try to take care of those we love, and try to get through hours. Remember that human beings have an incredible capacity to overcome adversity. In the aftermath of 9-11, we saw that once the immediate threat had subsided, many people were able to re-engage in their activities and find ways to heal in their communities. This will happen again, but only with time.
Do not let yourself get discouraged by the self-help rhetoric. If you want to challenge or distract yourself with some new goals during this time, that’s fine; but if your goal is to just get through the days, don’t let anyone tell you that’s not enough. Resilience will happen in the months ahead—as we learn ways to put together new routines and find a new normal. Post-traumatic growth will happen years from now. In the meantime, let’s focus on managing depression, anxiety, allowing ourselves to experience difficult emotions, and watching the ways we cope. That seems like more than enough for now.
The National Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline: 1-800-799-7233, or for TTY: 1-800-787-3224.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889
If you're looking for a therapist who provides online sessions, consider searching the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.