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What’s Next? Posttraumatic Growth Following COVID-19

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Although COVID-19 pandemic has had different implications for each of us, it still brings people together on a common denominator. Regardless of their status, wealth, ambitions, or long-term goals, the fact that everyone bears an anxiety for ‘tomorrow’ has somehow equated people.

The pandemic has engendered dramatic changes in our daily activities such as the shopping behaviours, working styles, travelling habits, or social gatherings, all of which represent the safe and predictable routines of everyday lives. No matter how small they might seem, we’ve realised that these activities have been essential in rendering our lives fulfilling.

Within a few weeks following the pandemic, a profound sense of uncertainty and the loss of a sense of control have become the leading sensation for almost everyone. So, it is only natural that our mental health becomes particularly vulnerable at times of uncertainty accompanying negative events.

Although adverse events may lead to overwhelming stress, which usually emerges in the aftermath of those events, posttraumatic growth is also as common as a response. Posttraumatic growth refers to the positive adjustment that results from how an individual responds and rebuilds his life following a life-changing event. In other words, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. How is that possible? It appears that adversity not only unveils our hidden strength in coping with difficulties, but also helps us enhance our resilience, and foster our self-confidence.

There is more to posttraumatic growth than pure resilience because resilience is like ‘being able to survive’, whereas in growth, the individual not only survives, but also experiences significant positive changes. Researchers note three main groups of such benefits: changes in self-perception, changes in the relationship with others, and a change in one’s philosophy of life.

As for the self-perception, when things we take for granted are shaken by unexpected events beyond our control, we first feel threatened and return to our basic survival mode. Nonetheless, as we gradually adapt to the new situation, we also come to realise that we possess a far greater inner potential than we previously thought we did. This inner potential enables us to find the right path even in the face of complicated situations, come up with innovative solutions to novel problems, and redefine our previous assumptions about the world.

Second, there seems to arise a sense of synergy and solidarity among people who face stressful events collectively. This shared social identity unravels prosocial behaviours, such as improved interpersonal relations, enhanced empathy for others, and altruistic behaviours. For example, although separated physically from our elderly family members during the lockdown, we have sympathised with them more than ever, thereby showing them more affection, talking to them more frequently over the phone, and helping them meet their basic needs.

Third, some individuals who face life-changing traumas experience changes in their life philosophy; such as rethinking what genuinely matters to them, or discovering a refreshed appreciation of each new day. A friend of mine who lost her mother told me that her bereavement transformed her perspective such that daily problems, which had previously seemed to her discouraging, and even depressing, then appeared to be trivial.

So is it possible to transform this collective trauma of pandemic over which we have little control into an experience of growth?

At a time when our collective sense of meaning is threatened, it is only reasonable to expect a certain degree of anxiety, as our primal instincts set in to prepare us for either a fight, flight, or a freeze response. Although we may not be able to select our stress response, there are still methods we can train it. The crucial element of this training entails an awareness as to the distinction between what we can control and what we cannot, and then coming up with a healthy coping response.

We are partially biased with so-called ‘illusion of control‘, which demonstrates our tendency for overestimating the control we have over events or situations in our lives. A sense of control, whether it is real or not might be useful to maintain our inner stability, yet during times of uncertainty accompanying events such as natural disasters, an unrealistic assumption of control is neither useful nor helpful.

The point is although we have little influence over what happens throughout the life’s course, we can still choose the attitude we adopt in response to those events. To put it simply, we can either drag ourselves into a state of despair and helplessness or rearrange our daily activities in a constructive and optimistic manner. As Viktor Frankl puts it: Man’s freedom is no freedom from conditions but rather freedom to take a stand on whatever conditions might confront him.’

Although it is difficult to maintain a positive state of mind under adverse conditions, this wilful state helps us attain an inner freedom, and redeem our sense of autonomy during times of crises.


Image credit: Freepik

Sinem Hurmeydan is a psychology and philosophy enthusiast, and a researcher. She holds an MBA from the University of Oxford.

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