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How the Pandemic Could Spur Post-Traumatic Growth

Traumatic experiences can result in both PTSD and PTG.

by Jane Mai Ngo
April 7, 2021 | Health
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Childhood fairytales often share a common theme. A hero must face a challenge, like completing a dangerous journey or defeating a dragon. After accomplishing this task, the hero returns home and is believed to be greater than ever before.

We're drawn to narratives about challenges that lead to growth. Today, we're living in a story with COVID-19 as our dragon. We may hope that slaying the coronavirus will lead us to a happy ending with a better world. We long for such outcomes because it can give a sense of meaning to prolonged suffering.

Those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic are especially suffering as they experience the grief that stems from an irreplaceable loss.

COVID-19 cast a cruel twist on our usual grieving processes. Many people have been unable to visit dying family members and, in some cases, grieving rituals have faced severe restrictions.

The inability to properly grieve and manage a traumatic loss can lead to complicated grief, which causes a survivor to be stuck in the grieving process, or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, other possible reactions to trauma include resilience and post-traumatic growth (PTG)

PTG and resilience

Many of us continue to work and live despite the massive challenges that the pandemic has added to everyday life. Our ability to keep functioning during this traumatic moment in history is resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back and adapt in the face of adversity. Following COVID guidelines, creating small-scale changes and goals, and finding safe and comforting ways to connect and grieve during a pandemic are all forms of resilience.

Some survivors have a harder time bouncing back from a traumatic event. Those who are less resilient may suffer greater emotional and mental stress. But, after a long period of struggle and distress, they may experience a strong sense of renewal, healing and personal growth, or PTG.

Psychologists measure the level of growth someone experiences after trauma by evaluating the following areas: greater appreciation of life, strengthening of close relationships with others, identification of new possibilities or a new purpose in life, greater awareness of personal strength, and an enhanced sense of spiritual and creative development.

A person who has experienced the phenomenon of PTG has not only adapted and recovered from trauma — they have emerged as a transformed person.

"PTG and the healing of trauma is something that cultures have dealt with throughout generations," said trauma expert and psychotherapist Dr. Shahar Rabi. "The human experience of growth is ancient as time."

The relationship between PTSD and PTG

Both PTSD and PTG are possible reactions to a traumatic event. Their relationship is complex, but a simple way of understanding them is through examining the different senses of control someone experiences after trauma.

Trauma can completely shatter someone's world. Those who experience PTSD do not gain back a sense of control. Instead, they are stuck in a cycle of re-experiencing a traumatic event. In PTG, a sense of control is regained.

In some cases, an individual can experience PTSD during their progression to PTG. In fact, a study from Tel Aviv University in 2010 found that moderate levels of PTSD were associated with the highest levels of growth after trauma.

"As humans, we are designed to withstand huge amounts of suffering," said grief specialist and psychotherapist Andrea Warnick.

Warnick recommends the Center for Complicated Grief as a resource for anybody dealing with complicated grief and the National Centre for PTSD if you're experiencing symptoms of PTSD. 

Planting the seeds for growth

Grief can be a very lonely experience under normal circumstances. During the past year of government-enforced lockdowns, the loneliness of grieving has been exacerbated.

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Rabi encourages trauma survivors to nourish their flower of growth during the grieving process.

Some people may consider delaying their grieving process until the pandemic is over, but Warnick believes that it's "healthier to allow yourself to feel your (grief) and work your way through it, as opposed to pushing it to the side lines. Make sure that you are still doing your own ceremonies."

David Kessler, grief expert and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, describes how discovering a sense of meaning can provide a cushion to the pain of loss and traumatic events. 

While it can feel helpful to find meaning and optimism to soothe misery, it's important not to rush the grieving process. Rabi believes that introducing the idea of growth too early in the process can be a form of "spiritual bypassing."

Rabi uses a biological metaphor to help explain how we can possess the seeds for post-traumatic growth, but that we shouldn't force the flower of PTG to bloom early. He encourages anyone who has experienced a traumatic loss to think about how they can nourish their flower of growth during the grieving process.

Rabi and Warnick both emphasize the role of social connection and engaging in activities that counter the collective dislocation we've felt during the pandemic. According to Rabi, these elements are fundamental to the process of growth and healing. 

If you know someone who has experienced a traumatic loss, Warnick recommends that you "show up" for this grieving person by taking time to listen and engage in conversation about their loss.

The most important thing, Warnick says, is to offer your presence and make space so that a trauma survivor can "share their full range of emotional experiences without being shut down."

Photo of Jane Mai Ngo
Jane Mai Ngo is a freelance writer and Certified Child Life Specialist based in Vancouver, Canada. She covers topics related to mental health, video games, cyber safety, and health and wellness.
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