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.”