Post-Traumatic Growth Is A Real Thing & You Might Be Experiencing It

Photographed by Hayleigh Longman.
In November 2020, 30-year-old Jasmine Kelly* stood in the kitchen of her flat and stared at the pregnancy test in her hand. The total number of COVID-19 cases in the UK had recently passed 1 million. England had just entered its second national lockdown, robbing Jasmine – a stand-up comedian – of most of her work. Her boyfriend, also a comedian, was in a similarly precarious professional situation. And now two blue lines were telling her she was pregnant. "I just freaked out," she says. 
Over the next few weeks Jasmine experienced a kind of unravelling. She’d long felt pressure from relatives to have a baby. The subject made her insides bubble with panic but she’d always insisted she was focused on her career, a line that helped her to avoid interrogating her own confused feelings about motherhood. But now that she couldn’t perform, her former life seemed suddenly flimsy. Becoming a parent, on the other hand – that was something solid, undeniable.  
"All the things I had before the pandemic had been taken away in an instant," Jasmine says. "It was like, maybe I’ll feel more in control of my happiness if I had a baby."
According to the influential American psychologist Richard Tedeschi, trauma is an event or experience that disrupts our core beliefs. Those beliefs might be related to our self-perception: in Jasmine’s case, she’d spent a long time telling herself that she wanted a successful career before a child. Suddenly she was out of work and seriously considering motherhood. Her understanding of who she was and what she wanted had flipped on its head. 
Eventually Jasmine decided to have an abortion. Again, some of her fundamental beliefs about herself were challenged: she’d always assumed she’d be calm and pragmatic if she chose to end a pregnancy. Yet she felt devastated, even though she knew she’d done the right thing. Social distancing restrictions meant she had to go to the clinic alone; afterwards "there was nowhere to go, and no one to talk to". She didn’t want to FaceTime her friends or meet one person in a chilly park. Instead, she went for endless walks with her boyfriend and cried a lot. "I felt utterly depressed," she says. 

On the surface, post-traumatic growth may sound like an attempt to put a sunshiny spin on profound pain.
In fact, it can be seen as the gritty counterpoint to toxic positivity because research suggests that if we want to experience post-traumatic growth, we shouldn't avoid negative feelings.

Over the course of the pandemic many of us will have endured experiences that fit Tedeschi’s definition of trauma: events that collapsed the framework through which we once understood the world. Fitness fanatics have had to grapple with serious illness. Dedicated professionals have been made redundant. Newlyweds have seen their spouse die decades before their time, sometimes alone, because of coronavirus restrictions. 
Even those of us who haven’t experienced these kinds of 'big trauma' will have had to rethink some fairly fundamental assumptions about how the world works (that planet-stopping pandemics were a thing of the past, for instance). Now, the British Psychological Society has highlighted a concept that Tedeschi helped to pioneer, which it believes could be experienced by many people in the wake of the pandemic: post-traumatic growth. 
"Post-traumatic growth is the idea that trauma can actually have some positive effects," says Dr Steve Taylor, a psychology lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and the author of Extraordinary Awakenings: From Trauma to Transformation. First developed by Tedeschi with his fellow American psychologist Lawrence Calhoun in the mid 1990s, the concept of post-traumatic growth was inspired by a growing body of research which suggested that experiences of great pain and loss may have longer term psychological benefits in addition to causing intense suffering. 
People who experience post-traumatic growth may find that their relationships are closer and more authentic; that they are more conscious of their own strength and aware that life is full of possibilities. Their priorities may change or become clearer as they gain perspective on what really gives their existence meaning and purpose. They may even experience a positive shift in their philosophical or spiritual attitudes. Studies suggest that post-traumatic growth occurs across all kinds of trauma, even among people who have survived extreme violence or natural disasters. Psychological and emotional growth after trauma "can coexist with post-traumatic stress," Taylor says, "but it usually begins to manifest itself once that stress has begun to die down – which can take a while."
Jasmine believes she went through a process of post-traumatic growth after the anguish triggered by her pregnancy in late 2020. Her relationship with her boyfriend feels deeper, calmer and more honest. "We were forced to communicate, which has had a big impact over time." And the subject of her fertility no longer makes her panic. "I've always felt the pressure to have a baby; it tugged at me constantly. Now I feel like if I don't have one, that's fine. I've come to peace with it."
Decades of evidence support the idea that post-traumatic growth is a real phenomenon. However, some psychologists have expressed reservations. Many studies of post-traumatic growth rely on self-reported internal shifts; critics argue that just because someone says or believes they’ve changed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have. Their subjective view of how they’ve grown for the better may be an illusion, a subconscious way of buffering themselves from distress. 
Dr Sarita Robinson is a member of the Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Section of the British Psychological Society. She believes that yes, post-traumatic growth may be inherently subjective – but that’s okay. "If somebody says, 'I have grown, I feel better after this traumatic event', who are we to question that? Who are we to say, 'Well, objectively, we don’t see markers of your growth'?" she says. "That seems really cold." 
Others may be cynical about post-traumatic growth for different reasons. Recent years have seen legitimate criticisms of toxic positivity: the idea that focusing on so-called positive emotions while rejecting anything that may trigger negative feelings is the best way to live. On the surface, post-traumatic growth may sound like an attempt to put a sunshiny spin on profound pain; a bumper sticker-style assurance that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Everything happens for a reason. It will be okay in the end – and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Given the trauma that so many people have endured during the pandemic, it may sound insulting to suggest that something good could come from it. 
But while it offers a fundamentally hopeful message, post-traumatic growth isn’t an attempt to put an upbeat gloss on suffering. In fact, it can be seen as the gritty counterpoint to toxic positivity because research suggests that if we want to experience post-traumatic growth, we shouldn’t avoid negative feelings. We need to sit with the difficult emotions thrown up by trauma, engaging in a process of profound reflection and rumination as we make sense of what’s happened and what it means for us. 
"Post-traumatic growth is a gruelling, terrible, difficult process," says Dr Jennifer Kane, a clinical psychologist who studied post-traumatic growth before going into private practice. In one study, Kane found that university students who’d experienced severely distressing events – the sudden death of a loved one, a car accident, a natural disaster – were less likely to go through post-traumatic growth if they tried to avoid their negative feelings. The opposite also appeared true: those who engaged deeply with their distress were more likely to experience positive psychological outcomes later on. 
"If something is really sad, upsetting or scary, most of us will naturally turn away and try to focus on something else. That makes sense, and it works up to a certain level," says Kane. In the context of severe trauma, however, she says that avoidant approach "usually breaks down. You have to be willing to be in really difficult emotions and allow yourself to experience them, in order to get to the other side. And then you can recover and potentially grow."  
That doesn’t mean people should feel grateful for trauma. "I think in general, what we're trying to do in psychology is acknowledge that emotions are very complex and we never feel just one way about anything," says Kane. "Something really horrible can lead to growth and change that is positive. Both of those things can exist at the same time. It doesn’t mean it’s good that [the horrible experience] happened."
Ciara Oliver*, 29, from Glasgow, thinks she may currently be in the middle of post-traumatic growth. In 2020, Ciara’s sibling died by suicide while self-isolating. Her clinically vulnerable father subsequently caught COVID at the funeral and went into intensive care. He recovered but the pandemic has shattered Ciara’s previous assumptions that "bad things happen to other people". Now, echoing Kane’s comments, she says she "exists in two realities. I believe two things can be true at once: everything will be okay, and everything is not okay."

Growth is supposed to be difficult – it's a bit like when you pour antiseptic onto a wound.

ciara, 29
Ciara finds toxic positivity offensive but says she can relate to the idea of healing being an agonising process. "Growth is supposed to be difficult – it’s a bit like when you pour antiseptic onto a wound," she says. Like Jasmine, unable to do anything but trudge around the park and untangle her complex feelings about her abortion, the pandemic has meant that Ciara often had no distractions from her grief. "I’m very lucky to have a garden and I spent a lot of time on my own just pacing around it," she says. "I had time to think and talk and attack these feelings head-on, in a way."
Priyanka Doshi*, 29, from London, was made redundant from her job in legal services in 2020. "It shattered my self-confidence, self-belief and sense of being able to look after myself," she says. Eighteen months later, Priyanka is still processing the pain of losing that job but working through her feelings via therapy and journalling has helped her start to look forward. "This whole experience has made me realise that I might have a better life outside law," she says. "It’s made me understand my strengths and talents… I want [to do] something more purposeful and aligned to who I really am." 
Not everyone will have been through trauma during the pandemic and so not everyone will experience post-traumatic growth after it ends. But the concept has relevance to us all. Tedeschi and Calhoun, the forefathers of post-traumatic growth, have suggested the process can best be supported by 'expert companions': friends, relatives, spiritual leaders or professionals (such as therapists) who will listen to people who’ve been through trauma. Lowri Dowthwaite, a lecturer in psychological interventions at the University of Central Lancashire, says we should all remember the importance of supporting one another as the pandemic gradually ends. If you know someone who has been through trauma, you can sit with them as they talk through their feelings of horror, fear, guilt, shame and confusion, without passing judgement or pressuring them to 'feel better'. 
"At the beginning of the pandemic, there was this idea of 'we're all going to look out for each other; we’re going to keep each other safe'," says Dowthwaite. "And if we’re going to protect each other mentally, we need to connect more. In Western society, particularly, we’re very individualistic, thinking about our own goals and needs. We find it very difficult to tolerate negative emotions; we're primed towards always being happy, and if we’re not, then we’re struggling." 
In more collectivist cultures, Dowthwaite observes, it is often "accepted that life is going to be hard at times. There is an understanding that life will be a struggle – but you’ll have support around you. The pandemic has shown us how much we need that sense of community; how much we need each other. That is what will get us through a lot of this." That, perhaps, is what will help us grow.
*Name changed to protect anonymity

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