What a year it has been! When viewed through the lens of the Six Dimensions of Wellness, a widely used and accepted wellness model, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted each dimension—occupational, physical, social, intellectual, spiritual and emotional. While the severity of impact is different for each person, we are all sharing in the loss and struggle.
Trauma takes many forms and if you have not personally experienced trauma, you likely will or are connected to someone who has. Often associated with terrible and or tragic outcomes such as depression, suicide, drug abuse and PTSD, it is estimated that three out of four adults over the age of 65 have been exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lives.
There is, however, increasing interest and evidence that indicates that adversity and/or trauma does not necessarily lead to a damaged or dysfunctional life. Post-traumatic growth refers to how adversity can be a springboard to higher levels of psychological well-being. The numbers vary widely, but research suggests that more than 50% of people who experience trauma also report post-traumatic growth.
How do we transform from struggle to strength? The renowned eighteenth-century philosopher Frederich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This is a place to start, but it’s not only the act of survival that makes us stronger but rather our thoughts, approach and response as we move forward. Post-traumatic growth involves the rebuilding of the shattered assumptive world. This can be illustrated through the metaphor of the shattered vase. Imagine that one day you accidentally knock a treasured vase off its perch and it smashes into tiny pieces. What do you do? Do you try to put the vase back together as it was? Do you collect the pieces and drop them in the trash, as the vase is a total loss? Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new, such as a colorful mosaic?
When adversity strikes, people often feel that at least some part of them—be it their views of the world, their sense of themselves or their relationships—has been smashed. Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.
The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected and disrupted many industries, resulting in dramatic unemployment and changes to our way of life. Are you preparing to put your vase back together as it was? Have you found yourself preparing to “go back” and just survive until things return to normal? How might you pick up your beautiful pieces and create something new? What areas do you need to explore and discover to take your first step forward? Exhibiting and embracing a view of life that is grounded in a belief that we can control our response to adversity and “grow through what we go through” is a path to a more fulfilled life.
According to Stephen Joseph, author of What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Post-traumatic Growth, the following three benefits often are reported after experiencing a traumatic event.
- Enhanced relationships. For example, people describe that they come to value their friends and family more, feel an increased sense of compassion for others and a longing for more intimate relationships.
- Deeper self-awareness. For example, developing in wisdom, personal strength and gratitude, perhaps coupled with a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations.
- Increased meaning in life. For example, finding a fresh appreciation for each new day, reevaluating their understanding of what really matters in life, becoming less materialistic and more able to live in the present.
If the past year has taken a toll on you, ignite your growth with the following actions:
- Invest in your personal foundation by cultivating increased positive experiences through the use of the evidence-based activity, “Three Good Things.” For eight weeks, at the end of your day, record three good things, big or small, that happened that day and why they happened.
- Use the post-traumatic growth reported benefits as a roadmap for your own growth by choosing one benefit each week on which to focus and self-explore.
- Choose to grow and put into action a belief that you can control your own behavior—not necessarily that of others or events around you—but your thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, regardless of what occurs around you, no matter how bad it gets, you will still be fine.
Viktor Frankl, revered psychiatrist, author and Auschwitz Nazi death camp survivor, shared this key insight in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing—your freedom to choose how you respond to a situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you feel and do about what happens to you.