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October 31, 2020

Growing from Trauma

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 loved ones’, present or anticipated economic struggle, uncertainty and anxiety, or sustained loneliness and depression. In recent months 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 a 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 a 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 corona 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.  Rather than rejecting fear or frustration, anxiety or anger, it is better to allow these to take their natural course.  So how do we express rather than suppress our emotions?  We can journal, write, about whatever it is that we are feeling.  We can also open up, talk, to people we trust.  And of course, giving ourselves the permission to be human can be about unlocking our floodgates and crying, rather than holding back the tears.

The second insight from the research on PTG relates to relationships.  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.  Relationships are potentially the number one predictor of both physical and mental health.  Spending quality time with people you care about and who care about you is always important; it is especially important in difficult times.  And if for some reason actual get-togethers are not possible—being quarantined or too far away—then virtual get-togethers will do.

Finally, to increase the likelihood of growing from a trauma, we can reframe the situation and find the silver lining.  Shakespeare wrote that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  While the British playwright may have taken the idea of reframing too far, we do have a great deal of control over how we interpret—and therefore experience—a situation.  What are the potential upsides of the current situation?  Spending extra time with loved ones?  Appreciating life more rather than taking it for granted?  Focusing on exercise and healthy eating?  Reframing does not imply that we should, or even can, rejoice now.  Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but we can choose to make the best of things that happen.

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