Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Growth From a Distressing Experience
What Does Trauma Look Like?
When most people think of ‘trauma’, they picture a severe or life-threatening situation such as a natural disaster, serious accident, being the victim of a crime, or experiencing abuse. While these incidents often cause traumatic responses, other life events like a chronic illness, being a caregiver to a dying loved one, witnessing pain inflicted on others, being exposed to persistent uncertainty, or fear for personal safety can also be experienced as traumas. These instances tend to be experienced as traumatic when they pose restrictions or threats to one’s physical or emotional integrity, and when we respond with fear or helplessness.
How Does Trauma Affect Us?
The psychological impact of experiencing a traumatic event has been extensively studied in the field of psychology. The wide range of negative outcomes that can come from experiencing a threat to one’s sense of safety, directly or indirectly, are vast. These effects include – but are not limited – to: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, difficulty regulating emotions, decreased job or school performance, negative impacts on relationships, lack of a sense of safety, and decreased concentration or memory.
Trauma and COVID-19
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, our minds and bodies have been under immense stress. We have collectively been experiencing the same ‘storm’, but in different ‘boats’. Some of us have managed to be impacted very little on a personal level while others have – and continue to – experience daily impacts of this virus. Regardless of the amount that we have been directly impacted, it can be posited that we are experiencing a collective traumatic experience.
Many essential healthcare workers have been coping with the daily stressors of keeping the public safe and providing care to those who are ill. For those outside of healthcare settings, our health, family’s health, jobs, social connections, coping strategies, and emotional well-being have been severely disrupted or taken away. As a result, this presents a consistent threat to our physical and emotional integrity, which can lead to feelings of fear and helplessness. There are many negative impacts that can come from this and it is important to seek out support and increase coping skills in these instances. At the same time, there may also be the potential for positive growth.
The study of positive psychological change that can result from a severely negative or traumatic experience is relatively new. The meaning that is placed on the traumatic experience and the impact it has are important to the potential growth that can be cultivated. Often, when individuals experience something severely distressing, everything they knew or believed about the world is shattered and rebuilt, allowing for growth to occur. These positive changes have been labelled posttraumatic growth, which encompasses five factors: 1) finding personal strength; 2) finding new possibilities; 3) relating to others; 4) spiritual change; and 5) appreciation of life.
While each of these aspects are important to think about and cultivate, an increased appreciation of life seems the most fitting in regard to COVID-19 considering the extent to which this virus has posed a potential threat to our lives and well-being.
Appreciation of Life
While all the above aspects of positive change that can result from a severely negative situation are important, an increased appreciation of life seems the most pertinent to the pandemic we are facing. Appreciation of life is the feeling of gratitude for life or an awareness of life’s fragility. This can be felt or demonstrated in various ways, such as:
- Acknowledging that our time in the world is a gift
- A changed sense of what is important in life
- Shifts in approach to, and experience of, daily life
- An increased gratitude for the ‘little things’ (i.e., a nourishing meal, time with loved ones, nature’s beauty)
With COVD-19, the majority of us have had our lives disrupted in many ways, forcing us to slow down, pause, and spend an increased amount of time with ourselves or loved ones. This time can bring stress, but also appreciation, and it can be helpful moving forward to incorporate this appreciation into our everyday lives, both during this pandemic and beyond.
Fostering Appreciation of Life
Although appreciation of life comes from experiencing something distressing and a resulting shift in our beliefs about the world, there are ways one can bring awareness to this process and foster feelings of gratitude. Below are some suggestions to increase these feelings, both during and after COVID-19:
- Enjoying newfound time together (i.e., family dinner, games, walks)
- Increasing mindfulness and appreciation for your body and ways in which it serves you (i.e., appreciating being able to take a deep breath, walk down the street, hug your loved ones, see friends again)
- Taking a walk or hike through nature and acknowledging your surroundings (engaging your five senses)
- Letting go of things that are ‘unimportant’ or ‘small’ when compared to the current situation
- Expressing gratitude for things gained from COVID-19 isolation/quarantine (i.e., increased empathy, time to engage in activities we tend to neglect, deeper connections with others, a break from busy routines)
- Perspective-taking of your situation compared to others (while being careful not to disregard your own struggles)
Our experience with COVID-19 is not over, nor has it had the same impact on each of us. In many cases it has been disruptive, scary, and life-altering. However, we each have the ability to gain something from this situation, while also acknowledging the stress and pain that it has caused. Gaining an appreciation for life and its fragility is one way in which this can be accomplished.
- Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The posttraumatic growth inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455–471. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.2490090305
- Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–
- Young, B. (2019). A Qualitative Investigation of Appreciation of Life Among Young Adult Survivors of Childhood Chronic Illness [Unpublished doctoral dissertation thesis]. Adler University.