The research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, focused on a survey of 385 caregivers of children in the United Kingdom and Portugal who had experienced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic (e.g., homeschooling their children, losing income, and having loved ones infected with COVID-19). When asked if there were any positive effects of pandemic circumstances, 88 percent of those surveyed said yes, citing improvements in their familial relationships, an increased appreciation for life, spiritual growth, and the discovery of new opportunities. Researchers noted that those who identified such silver linings reported better mental health than those who did not.
This study was obviously quite small, however, its conclusions are not new. According to Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear, the term "post-traumatic growth" was coined in the 1990s as a formal clinical modality. But "within the realm of psychotherapy itself, the idea of using trauma to foster self-growth has been in use for over a century," she says, noting that the concept behind it dates back much further. "In short, the traumatized individual is given the support necessary to understand, reframe, and utilize the traumatic experience to improve themselves, their relationships, and their view of the world."
Post-traumatic growth and the pandemic
The pandemic certainly qualifies as a worthy catalyst for this type of growth, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "Trauma often involves an unwanted change to your sense of identity—like losing a cherished job or no longer being a parent due to the loss of a child—or your sense of reality, and COVID-19 changed most people’s reality in a very short time," she says.
Of course, not every person who's living through the pandemic is traumatized by it. "Individuals do not respond to traumatic situations in the same way; whereas one person may be deeply traumatized by a life event, another person in the same situation may experience no distress whatsoever," says Dr. Manly. "What is traumatic to one individual may be perceived as barely a ripple to another—so much depends on personal history, lifestyle factors, and personality characteristics."
"An individual’s ability to use trauma to propel self-development depends on myriad factors including personality type, level of support, prior unresolved trauma, and environmental factors." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD
It's likewise true that not all individuals who experience the pandemic will experience post-traumatic growth in its aftermath. "Certain people are far more likely to experience post-traumatic growth than others," says Dr. Manly. "An individual’s ability to use trauma to propel self-development depends on myriad factors including personality type, level of support, prior unresolved trauma, and environmental factors." Licensed clinical social worker Tatiana T. Melendez, LCSW, says that more specifically, those who experience post-traumatic growth tend to be optimistic, believe in new opportunities, and be open to change.
Can anyone learn to develop post-traumatic growth?
Melendez believes post-traumatic growth can be taught—even to those who do not possess those aforementioned character traits. "Recovering from trauma is all about a mind shift," she says. "Many [people] have distorted cognition, which prevents them viewing the world as an opportunist."
In therapy, she says, people can be taught to create new narratives that foster post-traumatic growth—but, of course, that assumes all people have access to the specific type of care correlated with the experience of post-traumatic growth. This surfaces another critical differentiating factor between those who may experience post-traumatic growth and those who may not: Access to a specific type of care. "Post-traumatic growth is far more likely to occur for those who have access to high-quality psychological care," says Dr. Manly.
There are strategies, though, that the pros recommend for jump-starting a post-traumatic growth experience. First, fight the urge to ignore trauma, fake feeling happy, or shut down. "Our society tends to be quick-fix oriented. As a result, we are often given the message that we must get over things, ignore our hurts, or compartmentalize life’s traumas and challenges," says Dr. Manly. " It’s essential to pause to notice and honor the trauma and its impact."
Then, says Dr. Daramus, you might look at yourself as a "character" in a story and evaluate how you want this "character" to move forward from the pandemic. "You could ask yourself if your old values are still right for you and how you want to live your core values, then see what life changes you’re drawn to," she suggests.
How do you know if it's working? Dr. Manly says signs of post-traumatic growth vary but may include an increase in self-understanding, improved mental health, and a positive sense of how one fits into the world. "In a more specific sense, signs of post-traumatic growth include an increased enjoyment of daily life activities, a sense of inner calm, improved sleep quality, healthy eating patterns, a reduction or elimination of addictive coping strategies, increased emotional awareness and emotional control, and improved interpersonal relationships" she says. The most significant indication of post-traumatic growth, she adds, is the ability to look back on the trauma of the pandemic as having been a catalyst for good changes in your life.
But while it's possible for anyone to experience post-traumatic growth, not everyone necessarily should. "If you currently have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or you start to develop anger, physical pain, anxiety, depression, or other issues when trying post-traumatic growth, find a professional to help you manage the trauma reaction before you continue the growth process," says Dr. Daramus. "Trauma involves a loss of choice over your life, and pressuring someone—even yourself—to grow in a certain direction could be harmful by taking away the sense of choice again."
Dr. Manly adds that the work of post-traumatic growth is ongoing (ideally under the guidance of a trained professional) rather than acute. "[You should] continue to work intentionally to face any lingering trauma-based issues as they arise," she says. "The more self-work you do, whether by reading a self-help book, journaling, meditating, going to a support group, or working with a psychotherapist, the more you will optimize post-traumatic growth."
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