How to turn the worst of times to become stronger and live better.
The old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a nice sentiment. Yet the evidence points otherwise.
On the other side of hard experiences, some people can get stuck in negative emotions and suffer from mental health.
Yet adversity—whether from a one-off traumatic event or a prolonged period of challenge (like a pandemic!)—is not an exclusively negative experience for all people. In fact, it can be a powerful catalyst for deeply positive personal transformation.
Enter ‘post-traumatic growth,’ a term coined by psychologists to describe the phenomena of people emerging stronger in the aftermath of adversity.
Considered both a process and an outcome, post-traumatic growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress but can be experienced alongside it. As is said in coaching, breakdowns precede breakthroughs. The larger the breakdown, the more transformative the potential breakthrough.
In the realm of post-traumatic growth, the benefits of potential breakthroughs include stronger self-esteem; more meaningful and authentic relationships; and a greater appreciation of ‘the little things’ and of life itself.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict what kind of post-traumatic growth people will have on the other side of this pandemic. Yet there’s reason to be confident many will. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, 60% of Hong Kong residents reported stronger family relationships and a third felt better equipped to share their feelings with family and friends.
Here are six ways to facilitate your own post-traumatic growth, helping you not just ‘bounce back’ to your former self, but to ‘bounce forward’ from this pandemic in ways that leave you feeling stronger in who you are and able to thrive in whole new ways than you ever would have otherwise.
1. Reconstruct your ‘assumptive world.’
You might not know this, but you live in what psychologists call an ‘assumptive world’ that helps you make sense of this world and your place in it. Trauma has a way of knocking our ‘assumptive world’ off its axis, as our beliefs about how the world (and our lives) ‘should be’ butts heads with reality. Comments like, "I never thought this would happen to me," tend to follow such collisions.
Reconstructing your assumptive world after a tough time requires rewriting the story you have about how life in ways that incorporate new experiences without leaving you lingering in emotions of self-pity, blame or powerlessness about the future. After being in an armed robbery and losing my first pregnancy in the second trimester, I had to do just this. Sure I knew these things happened to other people, but I somehow assumed they would never happen to me. My new story reconciled my optimistic outlook that ‘life is good’ but incorporated the reality that ‘bad things can (and do) happen to good people including me.
2. Celebrate new strengths.
Adversity has a way of acquainting us with strengths we might never have discovered, or sharpen existing gifts or skills in new ways. The last twelve months have provided a masterclass in many things—from mastering Zoom calls to homeschooling. Take time to identify and acknowledge the talents you’ve uncovered, strengths you’ve sharpened or mastery you’ve gained that will serve you long into the future3. .
3. Deepen your spirituality.
Faith in some higher spiritual force—which some call God but which can go by many names—has been a deep source of hope and meaning throughout history. Of course, not everyone who experiences post-traumatic growth suddenly ‘finds God’ in their darkest hour, but research shows having some form of spiritual belief system helps people to weather life’s storms better and emerge better for it. In the aftermath of my brother’s suicide, my own faith couldn’t change the past but it helped steel my resolve to live my own life more purposefully.
4. Foster connection.
We forge more meaningful relationships through our struggles and vulnerability than our successes and victories. Unsurprisingly, one of the strongest predictors of post-traumatic growth is a robust support network. So while you may feel tempted to wear a mask or withdraw entirely, make a point of staying in touch with a few people with whom you can reveal the truth of your life. 5.
5. Love yourself harder.
When life feels out of control, double down on what lays within it…starting with doing more of what nurtures you—the body, mind and spirit. This includes being extra kind to yourself, particularly in your not-so-gracious moments, cutting out (or at least cutting back) on the less healthy coping strategies like excessive drinking. Create a morning ritual that starts your day strong. My own includes exercise, journaling and reading wisdom literature. It sets me up to turn my breakdowns—large and small—into breakthroughs faster!