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You Survived Trauma. Now What?

The coronavirus pandemic has been a traumatic experience for many individuals across the globe. Researcher Ibrahim Kira (specialist in trauma studies) and his colleagues in a recent study validated COVID-19 as a traumatic stress. The scale they developed consisted of three dimensions – “economic hardship’, “threat/fear of infection and death” and “disturbed routines/isolation. It’s no doubt that the consequences of this trauma have been deadly especially affecting the mental health and wellbeing of many.

This year, in a survey conducted by the mental health charity MIND it was discovered that in the U.K. over 60% of adults felt that their mental health got worse over the lockdown. 55% of individuals, especially young adults without any previous experience of mental health problems have also seen a decline in their mental health. Some of the most common mental health disorders manifesting in the wake of COVID-19 are anxiety, paranoia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic events like pandemics, accidents, deaths, combat, rape, illnesses, violence no doubt cause inevitable suffering. But it’s all not bad news. Trauma can also be a powerful force for change.

In preparation for a research paper that I am writing I have been doing extensive research in my area of specialisation – posttraumatic growth – i.e. growth following highly challenging situations, and this time specifically relating to the coronavirus pandemic. There is no doubt that mental health problems and struggles are on the rise but today, I want to share some thoughts on the other side of trauma – how people who endure psychological struggles following adversity can see positive growth afterward. It’s important to note that posttraumatic growth doesn’t in any way diminish the trauma you’ve experienced or eliminate the distress in your life. But people who experience the trauma have also been seen to develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people and a better understanding on how to live life post trauma. Those who experience posttraumatic growth acknowledge and accept their trauma, examine their present, re-define their purpose and forge a path to create their lives from this new place of strengths.

So where and how does posttraumatic growth manifest? There are five main dimensions of growth post trauma:

  • Appreciation of life: A greater acknowledgement and value for all things life has to offer, be it large or small, perhaps things, experiences or relationships that were once taken for granted. Undergoing trauma often allows individuals the opportunity to see life as the gift of a second chance and one they often realise should be deeply cherished. Qualitative data shows that a common posttraumatic theme in appreciation of beauty is about noticing things – sunsets, nature, blue skies, relationships and other things in an individual’s life that they simply had not taken the time to appreciate before.

  • Relationship with others: One of the characteristics of posttraumatic growth is relating to others –finding our attitudes or behaviours in relationships change in positive ways. We may now find ourselves willing to express our emotions, help others or even accept help, something perhaps we would never have done in the past. Within weeks of the lockdown, the NHS volunteer scheme had over 750,000 people sign up to volunteer in different capacities. Volunteering has increased substantially nationwide. Research shows that before the coronavirus outbreak, volunteer levels had barely shifted nationally for years. There is now hope that one of the legacies of the pandemic is a shift in attitudes and behaviours relating to others. One of my clients said to me -“Before the pandemic, I barely spoke to my neighbour, which honestly was quite rude, now all that is changed. I’ve also started smiling, nodding to people and saying good morning on my walks.”

  • New possibilities in life: During this time, you may perhaps already have found yourself exploring new possibilities and searching for meaning and purpose. Life purpose and meaning is not something that we wake up to one day and magically possess. These are new pathways that can be created and one that we need to seek. Trauma as many of you know is no stranger to me. As a survivor of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I’ve always been quite candid with the struggles I faced with my mental health. But as I sought professional help and moved towards this trajectory of growth I found meaning and purpose in my struggles. I realised that trauma is not who I am or what defines me and that I have a lot more to offer this world. I wanted to create real change especially in this field of mental health, start having braver conversations and coach individuals for posttraumatic growth. I found meaning and purpose from my own deep struggles with trauma.

  • Personal strengths: The level of trauma and threat itself may vary – some have succumbed to Covid-19 in a poor way, some lost jobs, some threatened in their own homes, while healthcare workers and key workers face difficulties in ways we may not even comprehend. But even in the midst of this trauma, many are discovering their own internal strength. In the struggle to survive, cope and to come out the other side, we are given an opportunity to develop strengths we didn’t even know existed. The struggles can make us stronger even as we experience the pain that comes along with the trauma. It’s useful to note that growth and strength can co-exist with pain and suffering but my point here is that trauma can be a testing ground for discovering our own strengths.

  • Spiritual and existential change: Spiritual and existential shifts post-trauma usually stems from refection. As core beliefs and assumptions are shattered one tends to look at the “big questions” in their lives. Pioneer researchers in the field of posttraumatic growth, professors Tedeschi, Calhoun and others have documented an increased sense of importance in spiritual matters in survivors as a result of trauma. Spirituality can be defined as having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape and provide comfort. After going through a life-altering experience people often tend to ask questions like - “if I had gone, would my life had mattered”; “what am I here to do”; “what is my life’s meaning”; “what deep connection do I have with this world” and so on. Traumas often force people to reconsider these questions or to examine them seriously.

As we continue to face the effects of the pandemic, take some time to see if you have had any shifts in any of the above domains. Have your strengths increased or do you appreciate things you once took for granted? What has changed for you because of these shifts and how are you going to use these shifts in the future to grow? Growth begins with the healing of trauma and as studies have shown people do have the capacity to do more than heal or just return to their pre-trauma baseline. Given the right environment, support, mindset and coaching, individuals can use their trauma as an opportunity to reflect, search for meaning and purpose in their lives and ultimately become the best and strongest versions of themselves. Do get in touch with me if you are interested in coaching post-trauma.


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