Growing from adversity in a pandemic

Jennifer’s pre-adolescent period involved abusive parents, an unstable home life, multiple episodes of sexual assault, and being carjacked at gunpoint. At age 12, she became the primary caregiver for both her incapacitated parents, and at 17, she had a breakdown. Finally seeing a psychologist, she was diagnosed as suffering from exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. She started seeing a counsellor, who helped her reduce her workload, focus on what was important, and improve her self-care.

Working with her therapist, Jennifer recognised that the future was uncertain, and used that knowledge to fuel a life filled with purpose. She began to focus on living each day with kindness, enjoying life’s small moments, and celebrating the strength she had developed in the challenges she had overcome. While not denying the substantial trauma she had experienced, she constructed a coherent narrative and found meaningful purpose in it, beginning a new career helping others that was made possible by the learnings she found in her own adversity.*

Posttraumatic growth

The idea that we can grow from adversity is not new, and the concept has been celebrated in philosophy and religious texts since long before psychology became a thing and coined the phrase ‘posttraumatic growth’. Consider Nietzsche’s famous quote from the 19th century, “That which does not kills us makes us stronger,” or the various religious texts illustrating the necessity of overcoming hardship on the path: Buddha left the palace, Jesus sacrificed himself, and Moses had to ascend the mountain.

Posttraumatic growth is the name given to this phenomenon by psychologists, and it refers to improved appreciation, relationships, personal strength, or spirituality in the wake of adverse or traumatic events.

I believe that while treating mental illness and reducing symptoms is important, we also need to give attention to the science of human thriving and growth, so this year, I was involved in a research project to study posttraumatic growth in the context of the pandemic. Specifically, I was interested in ways of thinking (so-called ‘cognitive emotional regulation strategies’) that predicted this growth.

Pandemic-specific growth

In previous research, a number of different thinking styles have been shown to predict posttraumatic growth, including acceptance, putting things into perspective, and focusing on more pleasant things, but according to our data, these were not related to growth in the very specific scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was one thinking style that dominated our data and was shown to be strongly related to posttraumatic growth, and that was positive reappraisal: finding meaning and silver linings in adversity.

It’s important to note here that this does not involve denial of the suffering or distress we have endured, but rather, expanding our lens to see the benefits as well.

Positive reappraisal: Questions to ask yourself

To start facilitating a growth response, try asking yourself some questions.

What have I learned from this situation?

In what ways have I become stronger?

What positive sides can I find in my adversity?

Can I transform some element of my adversity into something meaningful or positive?

Can I use my experiences to create something new, improve my life, or improve the lives of others?

Seeking support

At its core, gestalt therapy holds that people are intrinsically connected to their environment and circumstances, and that we all strive for balance and growth. Like Jennifer, you may find that having a counsellor for support can help you understand your trauma, heal your pain, and create pathways for moving forward with meaning and purpose.

If you’d like to talk to us about how we can help, contact us for a free consultation call, and we’ll help you find the best supporter for your journey to growth and wellbeing.

* Narrative found in: Jirek, S. L. (2017). Narrative reconstruction and post-traumatic growth among trauma survivors: The importance of narrative in social work research and practice. Qualitative Social Work, 16(2), 166–188.