How can the year that brought us a tsunami of trauma – a crippling global pandemic, perpetual political chaos, unrelenting economic upheaval, and upsetting social unrest – the year that mental health professionals experienced an unprecedented increase in anxiety and panic; how can a year with a profile like that be the year that produces a ripple effect of resiliency in your life? It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. It’s a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth, or PTG.
The definition of trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma is uniquely individual. What is distressing or disturbing for one person, may not be for another. The idea that trauma can lead to positive change in a person is an idea that has been prevalent in religious and philosophical teachings for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the term posttraumatic growth was coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.
The rub here is that as the theory implies, there must be trauma to experience posttraumatic growth, but no one goes looking for difficulties so that they can strengthen their mental muscles. Quite the opposite; we are biologically hardwired to avoid pain, and that includes emotional pain. Deeply distressing and disturbing experiences just unfortunately happen. Enter 2020. The year that trauma just so happened to happen to us all. So, can post-pandemic (aka posttraumatic) growth “happen” to us all in 2021? That depends on you.
Defined as, positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning, PTG opportunities abound when you consider the adversities and challenges of 2020. Stop for a moment to reflect and consider how 2020 personally impacted you. What hardships, difficulties, and adversities did you experience? While 2020 was likely largely focused on your pain, and just trying to survive it; 2021 can be focused on how you have grown through it, which can increase its meaning in your life. And meaning can make all the difference. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” His words, in part, influenced me to become an existential therapist.
Hope whispers, there is purpose in the pain.
If you can begin to find purpose in the pain you sustained in 2020, you may start to feel a bit stronger emotionally. For every struggle you push through, it’s a bit like exercising a mental muscle. It gets stronger with every adverse experience if you keep working it, and you become more mentally resilient. In other words, you are more able to bounce back faster from hardship. One way to develop those mental muscles is to dedicate time for reflection, and then use that to propel yourself forward by reframing toward the positive. What purpose can you find in the pain of your 2020? Take time to reflect on the distressing and disturbing experiences you sustained last year, but don’t pitch a tent and camp in that mental space of pain and despair. Reflect and then reframe your thoughts and mental energy toward the ways you have and will continue to push through, work around, learn from, climb over, out from under, and rise above – in 2021. Pitch your mental tent in that positive headspace of all the ways you have grown, and then begin to take steps to keep moving forward.
As I write this today, I am deep in remembrance of my mother’s passing two years ago from this earth on January 31st to what I call her “homegoing” to heaven. My mother became one of my closest friends when I grew into mature adulthood, and so losing her was indeed distressing to me. Something I am truly grateful for however, was that I was able to move back to Southern California and spend the last couple years of her life living nearby and enjoying consistent time with her. While I miss her deeply, watching her suffer in the grips of a devastating neurodegenerative illness that ravaged her body was more traumatic for me than her actual passing from this earth. Why? Because my spiritual beliefs tell me that her death means she is no longer suffering. Her spirit has been set free. She has been set free. This alleviates some of my emotional pain.
Two years later, I am still reflecting on how I grew in mental resiliency during those last precious months with her, and how it changed me in positive ways. She was confined to a wheelchair in her last months, and she and I were both the temperament type that is accustomed to approaching life full speed ahead, aka talking on the go. We were forced to slow down. We had so many quiet moments to talk, eyeball to eyeball, without distractions created by always being in motion. My mom confided things in me that she had never told anyone. For me, this focused conversation created a deeper appreciation of the woman I called “mother”. I learned that there is always more to a person than you know, even when you know them well. The human soul is deep and vast, and to judge someone based only on what you know, is foolish and selfish – because you will never know it all. These quiet moments with my mom taught me to slow down in my everyday life; I realized I often miss important details about people when I’m in a hurry. I also learned to be more flexible when plans don’t go as intended. I developed gratitude for quiet moments and focused conversation. I grew more intentional about seeking to understand someone else’s pain and how it impacted them. I grew in patience, tolerance, love, and acceptance. Interestingly, those lessons and the growth from that time served me well in 2020.
Posttraumatic growth is available to us through every adversity, challenge, and distressing event we experience. While trauma can be excruciating in the moment, it doesn’t have to end there. Distress can produce the light of reflection and the power of resiliency if we’re willing to learn and grow from it. The night is always darkest before the dawn, as the saying goes. But no matter how black the night, the sun is still there, waiting for it’s time to peak on the horizon. Just like the sun, hope is always present, even when you can’t see it. The sun has come up on 2021; let PTG light your way to a stronger, more resilient you.