By JILL SUTTIE, Greater Good Magazine
Having to isolate was hard. But, for some people, it was a chance to discover newfound appreciation for important aspects of their lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc around the world. Lives lost, businesses closed, economies in ruins, a wave of mental health issues. It’s hard to imagine that any good could have come of it—and little has for most of us.
Yet many people have consciously sought out silver linings from their experience, perhaps helping them to endure during this difficult time. Personally, I’ve come to value relationships more, reached out to help others, spent more time in nature, and experienced more meaning in life. I’ve also thought more about how I lived my life before COVID and what might be worth jettisoning in its aftermath.
And I’m not the only one. Friends of mine have mentioned that the lockdown has meant more quiet time for self-reflection, taking up new hobbies (like painting), or having time to exercise, which prior commutes made impossible. Some have noticed the stark disparities in how different people have suffered during the pandemic and committed themselves to fighting for social justice. These life changes have helped make the experience of restricted movement and isolation more tolerable for them.
Though no one seeks disaster, we can use it as an impetus for what researchers call post-traumatic growth—not just overcoming hardship, but moving forward from it and finding a “greater sense of personal strength (personal growth), deeper relationships with others (social growth) and a greater appreciation of life (spiritual growth).” And, while some of us have suffered more than others under COVID, how we respond to challenges and setbacks can make a big difference in our outlook on life and leave us better prepared for other adversities that may come our way.
What we can learn from post-traumatic growth research
Many of us are familiar with the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD—a debilitating condition that can affect people who’ve experienced extreme trauma (like wartime, rape, natural disasters, or growing up in a violent household). Post-traumatic stress can leave people with intrusive memories of the trauma, as well as hypervigilance, extreme anxiety, and depression, among other things.
Recent research suggests that the pandemic has caused PTSD-like symptoms in many people. No doubt, experiencing sudden losses or being isolated for months on end is traumatic. But even those of us who haven’t suffered as much under quarantine still find it hard to cope with the fear and uncertainty COVID has wrought. It can leave us feeling edgy, depressed, withdrawn from other people, and unable to sleep at night—all symptoms of PTSD.
The science of post-traumatic growth may offer some guidance on how to cope. Luckily, post-traumatic growth can happen (and often does) when people find a way to make peace with traumatic experiences, find meaning from them, or gain a better understanding of themselves and others. Though many studies have shown us how much the isolation caused by the COVID pandemic has harmed our mental health, some studies suggest quarantining has also given people opportunities to grow from the experience.
In a New Zealand study, researchers surveyed nearly 1,200 people and found that almost two thirds of the respondents were able to identify silver linings (positive things) they’d experienced during COVID lockdowns. One person noted that they were “getting to spend more time with my kids and spouse” as a result of quarantining. Another said, “We have also had some really great communication with our next-door neighbours, who we previously knew but not well.” Both comments suggest people realized that slowing down allowed them to strengthen relationships.
Other respondents found that they’d “learnt different ways to work” or noted they were “only shopping for essentials, not wasting money on stuff one wants rather than what one needs.” These responses suggest some people were looking at their lives and considering changes that might continue past lockdown.
In open-ended responses like these, the two overall themes that emerged were that (1) people survived by learning to cope, meeting basic needs, and maintaining their health, and 2) they thrived by focusing on self-development, reflection, and growth.
As the authors conclude, “The lockdown period represented a major flashpoint in people’s lives, and created an opportunity to stop, take stock, reflect, connect, and re-create.” Though the researchers didn’t try to analyze how doing so affected people’s overall well-being, other research suggests that finding silver linings in adversity can help people grow from it and suffer less.
Of course, context matters, too, and New Zealand’s swift and cooperative response to the pandemic may have made it easier for its citizens to see silver linings. But people in other countries also found things to honor in their experience.
For example, in one study conducted in Spain, researchers sent online questionnaires to 438 Spaniards (18-68 years old) in week two and week five of mandatory quarantining to find out how confinement during COVID affected them emotionally. As expected, people reported feeling many negative feelings, like depression, anxiety, and stress, with some groups experiencing higher levels of these—in particular, women, younger people, people with chronic illnesses or lower incomes, and those living alone.
However, many also reported concurrent positive experiences, like gratitude, a sense of greater meaning in life, and resilience. Not surprisingly, having more positive emotions and experiences generally increased people’s life satisfaction under quarantine, which, in turn, helped reduce their distress and increase their levels of post-traumatic growth. Similarly, a study in Germany found that while people’s ability to experience moments of awe and gratitude didn’t relieve them of the burden of the pandemic, it at least helped them appreciate more positive aspects of their lives during this difficult time.
Silver linings could even be found among people infected with the virus. In China, for example, researchers interviewed COVID patients and found that many identified positive themes emerging from their experience, including a “reevaluation of their life priorities, which included a greater appreciation of being alive and re-evaluating their values and goals”; “improved relationships within their social circles, which included establishing or maintaining closer relationships with family and friends and a greater willingness to help others”; and “perceived changes regarding themselves, which included personal growth and increased awareness of the importance of their health.”
While quarantining has meant couples and families have had the added stress of negotiating shared space and reduced privacy, there have also been some positives, like some couples experiencing increased closeness, better communication, and a spirit of teamwork. And, as one past study found, closer relationships may help lower our stress levels and reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress during a pandemic.
Does this mean we should all just focus on the positive and be better off? Not exactly. But it does suggest that it’s possible to find silver linings in quarantine that might lead us away from PTSD and toward post-traumatic growth.
Can we purposefully seek growth from adversity?
The above studies were all surveys done in the midst of a viral epidemic. That means they give us a snapshot in time of what people are thinking, but don’t show us how they came to think that way. It’s likely some people are naturally prone to seeing the good and that helps them cope.
But it’s also possible that in extreme circumstances we can make a choice to change our perspective. The question is, how? Here are a few techniques that might help.
Look for insights. It’s natural to feel stressed, depressed, or worried during traumatic events. We may think that the world is falling apart or that we can’t possibly cope. But trying to repress these feelings or thoughts will not help us move forward. Instead, we need to find ways to express them and learn from them.
One way to do that is through expressive writing—a technique that involves writing freely about something that bothers us and stepping back from it to reexamine our lives. Research suggests that expressive writing can help foster post-traumatic growth, particularly if you gain distance from your emotions and write about insights gained from exploring your experience.
Aim for self-compassion. We are going through a traumatic time, which means we all need to do what we can to take care of ourselves. Practicing self-compassion may help—and may also lead to more post-traumatic growth.
Self-compassion involves a combination of being mindful of how we are feeling and thinking, sending ourselves kind messages instead of harsh criticism, and recognizing ourselves as connected to the rest of humanity. Research has found that being more self-compassionate can lead to post-traumatic growth after adversity, because it helps people reframe their experience in a more positive way and can increase their sense of meaning.
Seek meaning and purpose. Post-traumatic growth researchers find that often people recover best from trauma when they can find some meaning in their experience. And research conducted during the pandemic also supports this link.
How can we find meaning at this time? We may turn to our religious or spiritual practices for understanding and solace. We may engage in meaningful activities, like creating art, experiencing awe in nature, or connecting deeply with our loved ones. Or we may reconsider our life’s purpose and decide to dedicate ourselves to helping others in need. Any of these could help us to grow through a focus on evaluating the meaning of what we went through.
Practice gratitude. Research suggests that grateful people suffer less from PTSD and that practicing gratitude may help alleviate symptoms of PTSD and improve well-being. That suggests that taking stock of even small things in our lives that we can be grateful for may help us move forward from trauma.
When Greater Good surveyed people using our online gratitude platform, Thnx4, during the pandemic, we found that it helped them feel more resilient, less lonely, and more satisfied with life.
This doesn’t mean we should feel grateful for the pandemic. Nor should we put on rose-colored glasses or ignore profound losses. But it does mean we might want to balance those difficulties by remembering to do the things that bring us happiness or meaning.
Post-traumatic growth is not inevitable, but it is possible, even in these dire circumstances. If we practice self-compassion and gratitude, and look for meaning and insight, we may get through the trauma of this pandemic better equipped to face what lies ahead.
Keywords; COVID, isolation, self-reflection