In times of stress, crisis, or trauma, we often ask: what good can come of this? These last few years we’ve been hit by a pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, unprecedented unemployment, and a global economic downturn. In the face of such a tragedy, it might appear that the answer is “Nothing.”
But at some point in the future we’ll be able to reflect on this terrible time and what it has brought for each of us as individuals, communities, and nations. Those outcomes will almost certainly include some good and some bad. In the field of psychology, we refer to this phenomenon as post-traumatic growth.
Negative experiences can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth. We see this in people who have endured abuse and neglect, war, natural disasters, bereavement, job loss and economic stress, serious illnesses and injuries. So despite the misery resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, many of us can expect to develop in beneficial ways in its aftermath.
Although post-traumatic growth often happens naturally, without therapy or other interventions, it can be facilitated using five growth strategies: through education, emotional regulation, disclosure, narrative development, and service. You can emerge stronger yourself. And you can help and support others to emerge stronger by encouraging introspection and curiosity, actively listening, and offering compassionate feedback.
I want to share these five strategies with you to help you or someone you're helping to start growing after trauma.
To move through trauma to growth, you must first get educated about what the trauma is: a disruption of your core belief system. Before the pandemic, many of us thought we were safe from the types of diseases that endangered people in the past; that bad things happened in other parts of the world but not ours; and that our social and economic systems were resilient enough to weather all storms. None of that was true. So now we need to figure out what to believe instead.
When our assumptions are challenged, it is confusing and frightening and tends to produce anxious, repetitive thinking: Why did this happen? Who’s in control? What should I do now? We are forced to rethink who we are, what kind of people surround us, what world we live in, and what future we will have. It can be emotionally painful. But ,as research shows, it can also bring forward change that will be of value. We must begin by learning and understanding that truth.
I lost two thirds of my lung to an unknown infection in my 40s and initially struggled to cope. I was a descent runner in my younger years, but after the surgery struggled to walk up the stairs without getting out of breath. But I soon realised that my changed circumstances would require me to reevaluate my identity: I had to figure out what was next in my life. I was lucky to be alive. Part of me didn’t want to face my future, but I knew I had to. That was my first step in having more compassion for myself accepting my limitations without being limited by them.
As we move through the current health and economic crisis, consider how you can reinforce—to yourself and others—the recognition that it may have a positive as well as a negative impact. Remember that you and others can reimagine how you live your life, behave and feel in these new circumstances many of us are still operating in.
To do any kind of learning, you need to be in the right frame of mind. That starts with managing emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and anger, which can be done by shifting the kind of thinking that leads to those feelings. Instead of focusing on losses, failures, uncertainties, and worst-case scenarios, try to recall successes, consider best-case possibilities, reflect on your own resources and preparation, and think reasonably about what you personally can do.
You can regulate emotions directly by observing and letting them disperse them as they are experienced. Physical exercise and meditative practices such as breathing also help. Employ these techniques yourself and share them to help others. Acknowledge that circumstances continue to be both challenging and frightening; then demonstrate poise under that pressure. And encourage more-frequent communication so that people feel less isolated and see their collective emotional strength more clearly.
This is where you should talk about what has happened and is happening: its effects—both small and broad, short- and long-term, personal and professional - and what you are struggling with in its wake. Articulating these things helps us to make sense of the trauma and turn debilitating thoughts into more-productive reflections.
If you’re helping someone talk about what it’s been like to experience a trauma, asking a lot of questions can seem like an intrusive interrogation spurred by curiosity rather than concern. It’s best to focus on how the impact feels and which of the other person’s concerns are most important in the here and now.
In a shared crisis or trauma, you can start by speaking openly about your own struggles and how you are managing the uncertainty and pain. You can then invite others to tell their stories, and listen attentively as they locate their difficulties and come to terms with how their challenges and losses compare with those of others.
We can produce an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterward so that we can accept the chapters already written and imagine crafting the next ones in a meaningful way. Your story—and the stories of people you’re helping—can and should be about a traumatic past that leads to a better future.
When you’re ready, start to shape the narrative of the trauma for yourself and those your are helping. How has it caused you to change your priorities? What new paths or opportunities have emerged from it? Look to inspirational stories of people who have recovered from trauma, like adult survivors of childhood abuse and neglect. Study and derive hope from them and remind yourself and those connected to you to do the same.
People do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others—helping people close to them or their broader community or victims of events similar to the ones they have endured. Two dads I know who’d each lost a child started a charity to help bereaved families connect with others who understood their grief. Many years later the charity is thriving under the leadership of other dads who have lost their children and want to share the strength they’ve gained.
Of course, you don’t need to start a charity to be of service. Focusing on how you can help provide relief for people who have experienced or having similar adverse experiences to you did can lead to growth. So can simply expressing gratitude and showing compassion and empathy to others. How you and other people you support turn to service will determine whether you see the adverse experiences and the fallout as an unmitigated tragedy or as an opportunity to find new and better ways to live and operate.
For me, I ran a half-marathon to raise money for the hospital staff who saved my life and cared for me after the surgery, and to prove to myself that I could run again - albeit at a much slower pace!
Hopefully, through this process, you and those you support will experience growth in one or more of these areas. People are often surprised by how well they have handled trauma. They are left better equipped to tackle future challenges with a clearer picture of their resilience, and growth potential.
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