A pandemic is a traumatic experience on a global scale. The trauma that billions are experiencing from COVID-19 may come from many sources, including their health situation or that of their loved ones, present or anticipated economic struggles, uncertainty and anxiety, or sustained loneliness and depression. In recent weeks that crisis, unprecedented in our era, has been compounded by a national uproar in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The question that many of us are asking, whether as mental health professionals or concerned individuals, is what will happen after the health crisis is over and the protests subside? How will all this trauma affect us in the long term?
The short answer is that even in the best scenario—one in which a vaccine is discovered and systemic discrimination is abolished—the collective trauma can put us down or raise us up, leave us weaker or make us stronger.
When I ask students in my class on Happiness whether they’ve heard of PTSD, most if not all hands go right up. When I then ask them whether they’ve heard of PTG, rarely is a hand raised. PTSD is, of course, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a detrimental and enduring response to a harsh experience. PTG stands for Post-Traumatic Growth, a beneficial and enduring response to a harsh experience. A myriad of situations can generate the trauma—from exposure to war and terrorism to being a victim of a crime or a natural disaster—and every traumatic experience can lead towards a disorder or towards growth.
The fact that so few people know about PTG, about the science of emerging stronger from trauma, is troubling. Knowing that PTG is a real option, and understanding some of the science behind it, can produce a ray of hope in an otherwise dark reality. And hope matters, for the difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope.
Furthermore, rather than being passive victims at the mercy of trauma, we can play an active role in how the experience plays out. Research by UNC psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Lawrence Calhoun, and others provides insight into the conditions that enhance the likelihood of PTG over PTSD. And while nothing that we know of can guarantee that people fall on the “upside” of trauma, we can do a lot better, as individuals and as a society, in our response to distressing situations like the coronavirus crisis.
Here are a few brief insights from the research on PTG:
- First, we ought to embrace the pain rather than reject it, giving ourselves the permission to be human rather than demanding machine-like indifference.
- Second, it is important to reach out to and engage with those who can support us; a mental health professional is great, but turning to friends, family, and colleagues whom we trust and who care about us can be equally helpful.
- Third, creating a narrative that makes some sense of the situation and gives meaning to it can go a long way in helping us emerge stronger.
My one-time student Paula Doroff, who lives in the Minneapolis area but grew up in extreme poverty in Brazil, embodies the promise of Post-Traumatic Growth. She was abandoned as an infant by her birth mother, never knew her father, and was raised by an illiterate grandmother who never expressed affection towards her. Suffering physical and sexual abuse throughout her childhood, Paula ran away at 14, ending up in Sao Paulo where she married as a teenager, one of four marriages.
Following a series of trials and tribulations, her life then took a wonderful turn for the better: She lived in Rome for a few years and then moved to the United States, where she found herself in a healthy relationship with her husband and two children, holding high-paying positions as a vice president in several world-class financial institutions.
Yet despite achieving what she thought was her dream, happiness eluded her. She signed up as a student in the Happiness Studies Academy, and with the same determination that got her to where she was in life, she has since applied much of what she learned. Among the evidence-based interventions that she implemented in her life were those essential for PTG. She opened up, and rather than bury her emotions she gave herself the permission to be human; as strong as she was, she bravely drew on the support offered to her from her loved ones; and by creating a new narrative of her past and present she created a better future for herself. She shared her understanding and experience with her colleagues, and today continues to do so as an Empowerment Speaker at conferences and a certified life coach. Working with some fortunate clients, she helps them accentuate the positive as well as grow from hardship.
Paula uses the very narrative that helped her grow to help others do the same: “I leverage my story to help people achieve their highest potential,” she says. “If they achieve happiness along the way I have done my part.”
One common way to infuse difficult experiences with meaning is to suggest that things happen for the best. While this may work for some people in some situations, it does not work for all people in all situations. Those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or experienced major economic setbacks are unlikely to subscribe to the “it’s for the best” narrative. However, while things don’t always happen for the best, we can still choose to make the best of things that happen. Paula chose to make the best of things that happened to her, and so can we, as individuals and as a society.