There’s No Silver Lining To COVID, But There Is The Potential For Post-Traumatic Growth

Looking for the “bright side” of a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans and 2.6 million people worldwide can feel... Pollyanna-ish, to say the least. Still, as we pass the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic and the vaccine rollout continues to pick up steam, many of us are clutching onto a tentative shred of optimism, feeling like maybe we’re finally coming out of this thing. And there’s reason to be hopeful. While it's clear that our lives have been irrevocably changed, some experts say that the events of the past year have created conditions that can allow for a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” defined as positive change that can only come in the aftermath of adversity.
Trauma shakes up how we think about who we are, what our world is like, what the future holds, and just how much control we have (or don’t have) over our lives, explains Richard Tedeschi, PhD, who, along with Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, coined the term “post-traumatic growth” in the mid-'90s. Certainly, the pandemic has fundamentally altered how we understand and interact with our careers, families, and social circles in ways we never could have imagined. “The process of challenging these core, assumed beliefs is what propels people towards these positive changes,” says Dr. Tedeschi, who serves as distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Foundation, which has developed a program to facilitate this process for first responders and combat veterans.
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is different from resilience, which is defined as the experience of overcoming adversity and returning to your former state. With PTG, you come away from a struggle changed for the better, typically in one or more of five major areas: appreciation for life, relationships with others, recognition of new possibilities, personal strength, and spiritual change. “It takes work, and attention, and energy [to achieve post-traumatic growth],” notes Dr. Tedeschi. But the effort pays dividends. Surviving a period of intense stress or pain can give you a crystal-clear view of your priorities, an intense appreciation for and bond with your partner, or a sense of unshakeable confidence in yourself. You haven’t simply found your way back to normal — you’ve completely changed. And while you may not want to relive the instigating experience or wish it on anyone else, the unique consequences on your outlook or sense of self can become something you value and even cherish. 
The pandemic isn’t yet over, and the individual and collective grief accumulated during the past year is far from behind us. But as the stresses start to ease up a bit — vaccines become more widely available and distributed, more schools and workplaces reopen, grocery shopping becomes a mundane chore rather than a potential minefield of disease — we have the opportunity to find something good amidst what has often felt like a garbage heap. But that growth won’t just happen to us: There are things you can do to seek out PTG, which will allow you to find stable new footing as your life shifts once again. Here are a few ways to strengthen your search. 

Try to stay as open and optimistic as you can.

Just being open to learning about post-traumatic growth as a concept and knowing that it’s possible can help you experience it yourself. Here’s why: The trauma of the past year alone isn’t what causes growth; our interpretation of it is, notes Kristine Olson, MD, the chief wellness officer at Yale New Haven Health, who co-authored an article on post-traumatic growth and COVID for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Choosing to believe that PTG is real and possible for you is the first step toward reflecting on how your mindset has changed, and embracing some of those changes as positive. Being generally open to new experiences, novelty, and change can also help, says Dr Tedeschi.

Develop a narrative around your thoughts and emotions.

When you’re in the thick of trauma, the human instinct is often to buckle down and get through it. It's only when the worst of the danger begins to pass that you start to really think through what happened. After that initial shock, people almost universally engage in what psychologists call “intrusive rumination,” say experts. That’s the endless ticker tape in your head of “I can’t believe this is happening, what’s going on, what am I going to do,” and so on. But if you can find a way to quell the anxiety and think more deliberately, you can start to explore more productive questions, like “How can I move forward?” or “What do I want to do differently?” 
Journaling can help you get a handle on your feelings; building a narrative about the trauma can be “a way to make coherent something that seems incoherent,” says Dr Tedeschi. There’s no one best way to journal: You can start by free-writing for one page or a few minutes a day, or jot down the answers to the questions above. If that’s not your thing, meditation, exercise, or yoga can all help with emotional regulation, too. 

Strengthen your network.

At a time when many people have been physically forced apart, it’s more important than ever to maintain social bonds. “Staying connected with others and being very purposeful about checking in supports your own and others’ wellbeing,” says Erika Felix, PhD, a licensed psychologist and associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies collectively experienced traumas. “You want to have people you trust, who you feel you can be vulnerable with,” says Dr. Olson. Sharing your emotional experiences and having someone with whom you can talk things through can help you reframe what you’ve been through and find hope and possibility, Dr Olson says. Even pets can serve in this role, adds Whitney Dominick, PhD, a social psychologist at Oakland University who has been studying post-traumatic growth during the pandemic. In her research, she’s found that many people are relying on their pets for social support during lockdowns and that it’s helping. 

Lean into spirituality.

A study of people in Madrid during lockdown found that a combination of spirituality and a search for meaning in life predicted growth. While the authors also found that the support of a religious community can help facilitate growth, religious affiliation isn’t a prerequisite here: The authors distinguish between religiosity (following a particular faith) and spirituality (a search for the meaning of life). Feeling united with others and acting in line with our values can help us find meaning during the pandemic, as can leaving space “to ask ourselves the big questions, about life and death, about our society, about human nature,” says study author María Prieto-Ursúa, PhD, of the Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid. Instead of succumbing to external pressures to engage in “pandemic projects” and self-improvement quests, it’s okay to spend any extra free time the pandemic has afforded you turning inward. “Let’s leave time for reflection and transcendence,” Dr Prieto-Ursúa advises. 

Be of service to others.

In her research of post-traumatic growth following the 2014 Isla Vista shootings in Santa Barbara, California, Dr. Felix found that students who got involved in advocacy work or helping the community heal in the weeks following the event were more likely to report post-traumatic growth six months later than those who did not. “Getting outside yourself and using your experiences to benefit other people in some way… is the ultimate way of taking something that’s been miserable and scary and turning it into something you can value,” says Dr Tedeschi. That could mean helping your elderly neighbors secure vaccine appointments, volunteering your time with an organization involved with COVID-19 relief, or simply being a supportive friend to someone in the thick of their own trauma.  
One reason this point is particularly important: In general, the more stress you experience, the higher your potential for growth, says Dr. Dominick. She found, for instance, that people who have gotten sick with and then recovered from COVID-19 themselves have had significantly more growth than those who have stayed healthy. That said, the relationship between the magnitude of stress and opportunity for growth is likely curvilinear, she says: If things are too stressful, you won’t have the resources to make meaning — you’re just in survival mode. And for every person who’s starting to feel like they’re finally getting a chance to breathe again, there’s someone else who isn’t. They may have been struggling with issues like chronic illness or poverty before the pandemic, and have only experienced more pressure as the result of the last year. There’s a very real need for people who can to spend their time, money, and energy lifting up people who continue to struggle — and if it benefits both parties, all the better. 
There’s no magic switch you can flip to achieve post-traumatic growth, and not everyone will (or will want to) experience it. The biggest indicator that you’ve tapped into PTG is a deep-seated sense that your core beliefs have been fundamentally altered. If you feel that way, the growth will be lasting, the experts agree. There may be additional work ahead of you; changing your behavior to fall in line with your new values can take intentional effort, Dr Felix notes. But her research underscores a message of hope. Despite the loss and trauma of the past year, she says, “the human capacity to adapt and heal from stress is really amazing.”

More from Mind

R29 Original Series