“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering
at the moment it finds a meaning.”
– Viktor Frankl,
Following WWI it was known as “Shell Shock”, and after WWII it was referred to “Combat Fatigue”. Today we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and it doesn’t just happen to combat veterans. PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event with death, injury, violence or natural disaster. Prior to COVID it was estimated that PTSD affected approximately 3.5% of US adults each year, however a CDC study conducted in April revealed rates of anxiety and depression to be as high as 35%, with a warning that the pandemic may increase rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ironically we are also witnessing another phenomena; Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), a concept similar, but distinct from resilience. Coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s, PTG is a positive change that occurs in the aftermath of struggling with a major life crisis or traumatic event. According to their research many who experience trauma not only show incredible resilience but actually thrive and grow in the aftermath of the traumatic event. Reported areas of growth springing from adversity include:
Greater appreciation of life
Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
Increased compassion and altruism
The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
Enhanced spiritual development
For most people, post-traumatic growth is an unexpected result of an attempt at making sense of an unfathomable event. Many are surprised at the growth that does occur from something that initially caused such pain. David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning writes, “Many people assume there is no meaning in loss. It is true that sometimes we have to search long and hard for it, or get help from another to find it. But it is there if we look. All of us get broken in some way. What matters is how we get up and put the pieces back together again.” So what is that process?
As previously mentioned, the negative experiences associated with COVID can spur positive change, but it is not something that just happens. Putting the pieces back together can be painstaking, but the benefits outweigh the efforts. It will be a unique process for each person, but each journey will share some common elements:
Outlook – As we move through the current health and economic crisis, we must consider how to reinforce—to ourselves and others—the recognition that the crisis may have a positive as well as a negative impact.
Disclosure – This is the part of the process in which we talk about what has happened and is happening; its effects and what we are struggling with in its wake. This is where we display our vulnerability. It is also where we listen attentively to others as they share their difficulties and come to terms with their challenges and losses.
Education – When the life we took for granted is changed and challenged, it is confusing and frightening. We need to rethink who we are, what kind of people surround us, what kind of world we live in, and what the future holds for us. These may be difficult questions to confront, but growth begins by learning and understanding the truth.
Refocus – A growth mindset is the basis for learning. We begin by managing negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and anger. By shifting and refocusing our thinking to recall successes, envision best-case scenarios, and reflecting on our own resources and preparation, we begin to see possibilities and what we can accomplish.
Service – People do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others, be it people close to them, in their broader community or victims of events similar to the ones they have endured. How you are of service will paint the picture of the pandemic as an unmitigated tragedy or an opportunity to find new and better ways to live.
Growth cannot be forced, nor can it be rushed. In fact there is no timetable, for growth is an individual process. It is a journey each of us must pursue, but it need not be alone. How will you grow as a result of this Pandemic, and equally important, how will you be of service to others, and help them grow. That is the challenge I put before you!