Trauma

How We Can Grow During the Pandemic

Research shows positive change is possible.

Posted May 20, 2020

As a nation of diverse peoples, it’s a given we have differing opinions and beliefs, and likely don’t agree on everything. But one thing we can all agree on is that we live in unprecedented and extraordinarily stressful times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last three months have taken their toll on us as individuals as well as collectively. But things are looking up, a little, well, maybe. After being closed for a while, some communities have commenced soft “re-openings” and, being cautiously optimistic, we prepare to take appropriate steps toward beginning our new lives with an uncertain future. If we sound tentative, it’s because we are.

There’s no sugar-coating this: We are experiencing life-altering situations that will likely become the new normal. And no matter where we are, our lives have been disrupted, or worse, devastated by losses. If we’re among the fortunate and have been able to work from home, then Zoom or Skype, text messages, and emails have replaced in-person meetings. And if we haven’t been able to work from home, then maybe for the first time in our lives we’ve been placed on some sort of suspension, or let go; or seen our small businesses temporarily—and perhaps permanently—closed. We’ve spent hours that have bled into days on hold, waiting to get through to unemployment agencies, or insurance companies, or local banks, hoping we get reduced rates, promised loans, or grants.

If we’re fortunate, we may have become dependent on delivery services, or curbside pickups of food and supplies. And if we’re unfortunate, we wait in long lines to get into stores, or for free food boxes—likely something we’ve never had to do before. With little or no child care, we’ve taken on the additional duties of teacher, adding to the pressure, anxiety, and uncertainty that we already feel. We suffer from a sort of collective post-trauma stress even while we’re in the thick of it, and with no near end in sight, much less a glimpse at a silver-tinted lining.

COVID-19, Trauma, and Post Trauma

Simply put, post-trauma or post-traumatic stress starts with a traumatic event that leaves us feeling depressed, anxious, and stressed. In the case of the effect COVID-19 is having on our citizens, the traumatic event is similar to what people experience when their country is unexpectedly attacked during war, or by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With the rapid, 180-degree life change we’ve had to make in order to survive this new enemy, we may find ourselves suffering from unusual sleep patterns or insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability or outbursts of anger, feeling detached from others, distressed, loss of appetite, or eating more than usual, or drinking or drugging more in an attempt to self-soothe and temporarily feel better.

Although we haven’t experienced the physical ruin of a declared war since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or between the coasts since the Civil War, COVID-19 has declared a different kind of war on our nation, and on humanity. Innocent people die in war, and COVID-19 is no different - it maims and kills indiscriminately. What is different is how we as citizens are reacting to this upsetting situation. Or maybe our reactions aren’t as different as they’ve been in the past as we seem to be, in a way, bi-polar and have diametrically opposed opinions as to how our nation should proceed during this time. Should we ignore the war and carry on as if it isn’t happening? Or should we do all we can to defeat the enemy? And who is our enemy, anyway? Is it the “others” who don’t think the way we do, who we see as taking away our “rights”? Or is it COVID-19 which has, so far, taken the lives of nearly 100,000 citizens? Although as a country we’ve historically committed unforgivable atrocities and persecuted “others”, we’ve also been guided by our better angels. We’ve pulled together, looked out for one another, and helped our nation “win” these wars. (And to be clear, the enemy is undoubtedly COVID-19 pandemic. )

Feelings of turmoil, division, helplessness, and fear bloom in stressful situations and it’s possible we’re in the midst of the most traumatic era in modern history. During such times, when faced with situations beyond our control, rather than focus negative thoughts and feelings on others in an attempt to feel more powerful and in control, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we are the only person or thing we can truly control. We, each of us, have a choice to take this time to contemplate what motivates and guides us, if there are lessons to be learned, and is it time to make some mental and behavioral changes before we proceed.

Resilience, post-traumatic growth, and moving forward

We start by finding meaning and purpose in our lives. We draw upon our resilience, and if we aren’t blessed with such a gift, we search for the positive, we search for post-traumatic growth. There is truth in philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous saying: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Many people are innately resilient. They bounce back after a traumatic event or stressful situation. However, for those low on resilience, a trauma or stress is much more difficult to recover from and can bring with it a host of unwanted behaviors. But resilience can be an indication of post-traumatic growth. Studies indicate that people who survive trauma can indeed find positive changes in their lives. As psychologist Richard Tedeschi discovered while developing the theory of post-traumatic growth, "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life”.

There is a difference between being resilient and post-traumatic growth, as Tedeschi further explains: “Someone who is already resilient when trauma occurs won't experience post-traumatic growth because a resilient person isn't rocked to the core by an event and doesn't have to seek a new belief system. Less resilient people, on the other hand, may go through distress and confusion as they try to understand why this terrible thing happened to them and what it means for their world view.”

Mental health professionals focus on the following areas to determine post-traumatic growth: new possibilities, relating to others, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life. As an aside, research shows that women tend to report more benefits than do men, and persons who have experienced traumatic events report more positive change than do persons who have not experienced extraordinary events.

What we can each do now

As individuals, we can take tips from the decades of study provided by Tedeschi and others in the field of post-trauma research. We’ve taken the five areas of focus and included ways we can accomplish our own personal growth starting with recognizing the important opportunities we’re presented with:

Appreciate life. When we’re suffering from grief or loss (the loss of loved ones, livelihood, or the way life used to be), it’s normal to slip into depression and feel like there’s no hope. When you realize this is happening, take a moment to switch focus to something or someone you treasure. It could be as simple as the sound of laughter, or the shape and color of a flower, or a particular food that reminds you of good times. And it can be as all-encompassing as embracing the life you’ve been given, hard as it may be, and cherishing the experiences which have contributed to making you the unique person you are. If you’ve lost a loved one, consider making a vow to yourself that you’ll live “double”—for yourself and the person you lost.

Relationships with others. Relationships can suffer during times of stress as it can be hard to put energy towards others when we’re feeling low. And although many of us have lived far from the people we love for years and maybe haven’t been in touch with them much, times are different. We don’t know what will happen or when, or if, we’ll see them again. Even if they live close by, social distancing makes it difficult or impossible to visit. So each day or two, choose one or more people on your list of family and friends and take a bit of time to send out that text, email, or message, FaceTime, or Zoom call them and connect. Let them know you’re thinking about them and that you’ll be checking in more frequently; and that they’re welcome to do the same.

Conversely, being in close proximity with family or roommates for extended periods of time can be intense, especially if in the past you’re used to spending much less time together. Ideally, we have the space to have some alone time each day to spend doing what we like to do. But this isn’t possible for everyone. Rather than be chronically irritated, try to find projects (chores, meal making) to do together or games to play. If the only space you have to be alone is the bedroom, carve out time each day and call dibs. We have the opportunity to deepen relationships during trying times, to get to know each other better, appreciate our strengths, and most importantly, be kind to each other. 

New possibilities in life. Change, especially when it’s unexpected, is difficult for most people to cope with. We tend to like our habit patterns and when they’re disrupted, we get grumpy and scared. But, change leads us to find new ways to move forward. Change means new possibilities—and progress. Covid-19 is forcing us all, our governments, businesses, scientists, and medical personnel to rethink how things have previously been conducted. As individuals, it’s helpful to realize our old way of life is transforming rapidly and while we can long for how things used to be, it’s much more helpful to turn around and face our new future, which we will be a part of and help create. The possibilities can be awesome when we open our minds and our spiritual essence.

Personal strength. We’re in uncharted territory and it’s important to stay as physically, mentally, and emotionally strong as possible. Fortunately, as human beings, we’re adaptable. And we’re very strong! If we weren’t, we wouldn’t still be here! There is a deep well of courage and durability within you. Draw upon it as often as needed. Replenish yourself by taking special care of your body, mind, and spirit. And let’s all practice compassion when we connect with others.

Spiritual change. Although not everyone has a faith-based practice or believes in an afterlife, for the majority who do, COVID-19 is offering an opportunity to grow exponentially. “Why is this happening (to me)?” can be replaced with “Why not (me)?” Throughout the ages, humanity has been tested. This is one of those times. And for people of faith, it’s go-to time; time to immerse in beliefs that have brought you this far. Time to reflect on what your spiritual practice or beliefs mean to you and how they are reflected during this trying time.

The ravages of this pandemic may be new to us. But as human beings, we’ve been here before. We know how to leave it in the past, to find joy in the present, and begin to forge our future. Together, we will triumph over COVID-19.

References

Tedeschi, R.G., Calhoun, L.G., (1996). The Post-traumatic Growth Inventory: measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Bethesda, MD: NIH.

Zimbardo, P., Sword, R.M., Sword, R.K.M., (2012). The Time Cure. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.