Post-traumatic growth could help us be more resilient, more confident and more grateful after coronavirus

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Looking after your mental health during COVID-19

While so much of the future remains uncertain, we can harness post-traumatic growth (or PTG) to build resilience, to grow in confidence and to be more grateful after the coronavirus crisis. Elli Jacobs spoke to Dr Samantha Clarke and Dr Karen Philip to find how. 

As the lockdown measures gradually ease and we begin to lean into the future and tune-in to what the ‘new normal’ may look and be like for us post COVID-19, it’s inevitable to wonder about the pandemics after effects on our lives individually but also collectively.

What’s certain is change. And lots of it to which we will need to readjust our lives accordingly. Yet, surprisingly for many of us the outcome will be positive – as after any post-crisis era individual growth is inevitable and, in this instance, I also believe communal growth.

Researches who studied how having to cope with trauma impacts us, discovered that it can lead to post-traumatic growth versus post-traumatic stress symptoms.

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What is post-traumatic growth?

Coined in the mid 1990’s by US-based psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun post-traumatic growth is the idea that traumatic events or challenging life circumstances can unexpectedly result in positive psychological change on our sense of self, our relationship with others including to our philosophy of life.

This suggests that as the shock and pain of the last couple of months fades away, we’re likely to feel more appreciative of our lives and use this setback to create a momentum for positive change. It’s through finding this silver lining that we’ll discover within us a new sense of resilience, confidence and even an ability to thrive. Clinical psychologist and wellness expert Dr Samantha Clarke (PHD) says that by accepting what we can’t control and focusing on what we can with a sense of gratitude and within the safe boundaries of our families support, we put ourselves in the best position possible to pursue new opportunities.

“A core factor that enables us to turn adversity into advantage is the extent to which we allow ourselves to explore with curiosity our thoughts, feelings and behaviours surrounding this event no matter how challenging this process may be,” notes Dr Clarke. “And as we attempt to make sense of this unfathomable time, reflect on what we have learned and find new meaning in the seemingly incomprehensible, it can help us hone in on what we want our lives to look like moving forward plus give us insight into deep reservoirs of strengths, capacities and abilities we never knew we had. This will not only heighten our sense of inner resilience and potential for growth, but it’s also a chance to consolidate our newfound wisdom to tap into in the face of any future adversities.”

The good news is post-traumatic growth is already happening around us and is expected to continue both individually and collectively.

A greater appreciation of life

Rather than filling our lives with incessant activity and constantly rushing into the future, expect to live each day to the fullest.“If we stop and reflect on this time and integrate the changes we will likely begin questioning if the level of stress we were accumulating from our fast-paced lifestyles was necessary and how much meaning our lifestyle choices were giving us,” says Dr Clarke.

As a result, there will be a desire for change against the cultural norm of busyness and to-do lists, towards a slower quality of daily life where we will be taking it day by day and savouring the present moment.

“Instead of rushing to where we need to be we will be pacing ourselves, living on purpose and making fulfilling choices including better consumer choices – ones that are not driven by materialism and waste but are more altruistic, take nature into consideration and a more spiritual attitude to life,” adds Dr Clarke. “There will also be a big push towards working from home to reduce the risks that come with crowded public transport, which with a degree of due diligence can be great for that work-life balance we’ve been trying to achieve for years,” says Dr Karen Philip, counselling psychotherapist.

Our connection with family will intensify

“Because we were forced to disconnect and distance ourselves from our loved ones for a period of time this has awoken us to the fact that our family is important and moving forward we will want to create more authentic relationships overall with people in life,” says Dr Philip.

Most importantly, even as the measures lift, the elderly members of our family will still be to a certain degree in lockdown – being the most vulnerable to the virus. “Rather than putting off visiting them as we probably did in the past, we will prioritise seeing them as often as possible for support but to also create more memories with them,” notes Dr Philip.

Increased compassion

We will essentially be much more compassionate of our wellbeing and that of others. Dr Clarke says that compassion for others will definitely grow, as after caring for our own safety and dealing with our own anxiety we can better empathise with others suffering and be more tolerant of their behaviours. “Through this pandemic we have been able to relate on a national and even a global scale and this has shown our interconnectedness where we now feel a common sense of purpose and a spirit of cooperation.”

Research has shown that when we apply self-compassion in the face of negativity this results in a growth mindset as we are more willing to keep trying in the face of adversity.In turn, this can lead to compassion towards others. A 2016 study published in Sage Journal showed evidence of collective post-traumatic growth after natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. In these situations, people developed communal coping strategies and had more collective gatherings.

“Rather than existing as isolated individuals we will see whole communities integrating and working together, irrespective of ethnicity and religion to overcome this crisis as there’s a sense of ‘we are all in this together,’” notes Dr Clarke. When it comes to physical connection there will be some hesitation which asks for our understanding.

While we keep the anti-coronavirus safety measures in place like hand sanitisation and a secure level of physical distance in public, Dr Philip says, predominantly older people will still embrace and connect with their very close friends and family but they will be a bit more mindful or remain slightly distant from general acquaintances.In general, we should respect people’s needs and be tolerant of behaviour’s during this time and perhaps even until a vaccine is found.

We will support locally-made products

This new crisis has resulted in an extremely positive outcome which has seen us shift from supporting Australian-made products at the aftermath of the bushfires to now buying locally-made.

“We have stepped back into our own communities so much more during lockdown and I feel we will continue to support small local businesses,” says Dr Philip.“It’s not only because we know people who have been affected and we want to support them but when we look local we also feel safer. We know who handled the products and where they came from as opposed to imported products where we don’t know under what circumstances they were packaged, which based on the transmutability of the virus local is healthier.”

Maintain the momentum of post-traumatic growth

Dr Clarke suggests the following to keep the good changes coming:

  • Be mindful of your values, and set goals around what really matters the most to you
  • Focus on what you can change and not on what you can’t – as it’s easy to get caught up in anxiety and stress rather than growth
  • Be conscious of how you use your time and spend money

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.


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