Don’t Waste the Chance You’ve Been Given
The pandemic offers a chance for Post-Traumatic Growth; here is how to seize it.
It is both a popular belief and a research-backed notion that wisdom is gained through experience. The more challenging the experience, the more opportunity for growth.
Situations that push us to the limits of our endurance are called “ultimate limit experiences,” and they can accelerate the development of wisdom. The psychological term for inner growth that springs from stressful experiences is “post-traumatic growth.”
These two areas of research overlap, and ultimately come to the same conclusion: The opportunity for growth exists within all crises, but not everyone who goes through a life crisis becomes wise as a result. The Post-traumatic growth of wisdom after Covid will be here for the taking, but will you take it?
Seizing This Opportunity
Obviously, the level of trauma caused by the pandemic varies widely. Some of us have lost loved ones, lost our homes, or have lost the ability to meet our basic needs. The prevalence of depression and substance abuse has increased noticeably. As of June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with a mental health or substance abuse issue.
On the other end of the spectrum, some of us are living comfortably despite the pandemic, but are still experiencing fear, loneliness, and a loss of stability. None of us are living the same lives we were living 1 year ago.
For those of us in survival mode, growing wisdom is far from our minds right now. Coping is the utmost priority, so if that is where you are at, you may rightly be irritated by calls to use this time for growth. Others of us have been fortunate to be able to use this time to reassess priorities, start a work-out program, bake bread or start meditating. While our experiences over the last year vary widely, it is a traumatic experience for most of us.
The majority of us are going to bounce back; at some point returning to the level of happiness we experienced pre-pandemic. This bouncing back to baseline is the definition of resilience, and humans are incredibly resilient.
While shooting for a return to normal is a fine goal in itself, consider being open to derive something positive from this time of struggle. The possibilities for personal and collective growth are opportunities for accelerated growth and wisdom.
PTG does not occur as a direct result of trauma; rather, it is the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of trauma. The phenomenon was identified by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. They described five categories of growth that occur over time:
- Changes in how they relate to other people
- Recognition of new opportunities, priorities or pathways in life
- Greater appreciation for the value of one’s own life, and life in general
- Recognition of one’s own strength
- Spiritual or existential development
What does PTG look like?
Survivors of trauma report an increased ability to recognize and embrace new opportunities. They are able to forge stronger relationships with loved ones as well as with victims who suffered in the same way. They report being able to cultivate inner strength through the knowledge that they have overcome tremendous hardship, and they gain a deeper appreciation for life. Often their relationship to religion and spirituality changes and evolves. Sounds good, right?
While this research is looking specifically at “growth,” and not wisdom per se, the 5 categories of growth that they identified correlate perfectly with what research identifies as the traits of wise people. So how can we cultivate the post-traumatic growth of wisdom after Covid?
Post-traumatic growth is a long-term game
Remember the keyword is POST. It is not called traumatic growth. Although we may see a light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the midst of a pandemic. The physical, emotional, and financial costs are going to be with us for a long time, but there WILL be opportunities to cultivate wisdom. Now is the time for us to get through this, and remember that human beings have an incredible capacity to overcome adversity. Post-traumatic growth is a long-term game. Just be open to the opportunities for it so you can recognize them when the time is right.
If you have the space, time, bandwidth, right now to think about your own post-traumatic growth; that in itself can be a coping mechanism. It is a way to focus on positives, without ignoring the negatives. When we are in the midst of a long-term traumatic period like this one, we have time to begin accepting the chapters already written, while shifting our view of the future events in a meaningful way. We can craft our story in a way that paints a picture of a traumatic experience that leads to a future that is improved in some ways, and this picture offers hope despite the misery we may still be feeling.
Facilitating post-traumatic growth = cultivating wisdom.
Post-traumatic growth often happens naturally, without psychotherapy or other formal intervention, but it can be facilitated. Psychologist Richard Tedeschi shares the elements of post-traumatic growth in his book The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient.
The 5 elements that foster PTG growth are:
- Emotional regulation
- Narrative development
For an excellent summary of the 5 elements, you can view Tedeschi’s article on growth after trauma here.
Wisdom researchers have identified 3 long-term strategies for cultivating wisdom; one of which is post-traumatic growth. The other two are the ability to reflect on your experiences and meditation practice.
8 weeks of meditation has been shown to lead to the thickening of brain regions responsible for perspective-taking and emotional regulation, which are vital components of wisdom. The beauty of meditation is that it not only provides long-term benefits but also helps bring down your stress response within minutes, giving you noticeable relief.
Taking the time to reflect on your experience is vital to cultivating post-traumatic growth of wisdom after Covid. Ponder these questions about your experience so far:
How has this caused you to recalibrate your priorities?
What new paths or opportunities have emerged from it?
What do you appreciate more now?
How have your relationships improved?
How have you been surprised by your own resilience during this time?
Likely there are several positives to be found among the answers to those questions, and likely also areas where you can offer yourself both empathy and gratitude.
There will be both personal and social long-term effects from this pandemic experience. Being mindful of which of those changes are positive and worth cultivating is one step towards the post-pandemic growth of wisdom.
My wish is that many of us develop a heightened sense of appreciation, more authentic relationships, and a new sense of resilience and confidence; which has the effect of up-leveling our collective wisdom.
Thanks for reading.
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW