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Creating opportunities for post-traumatic growth

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

We have a long way to go in understanding the highly individualistic nature of how trauma is experienced, how it affects the survivor and creating optimal approaches to overcoming it. We often fail to envision treatment and recovery as a transformative process that is inherently spiritual. Perhaps we even limit our opportunities and approaches by seeking only to return to baseline functioning.

I’m thinking about that as I read memes describing how we’re collectively experiencing the trauma of a pandemic. I dislike this concept for a myriad of reasons, but primarily because it is singular in nature. It does nothing to conceptualize how diverse our experiences are. Painting with a brush this broad supports the idea that, “We’re all in this together.”

No. No, we’re not. We’re not even in the same “it.” Some of us are occupationally required to risk our health and well-being. Some of us are homeless. Some of us are battling addiction without the benefit of face to face support. Some of us have the privilege and means to simply binge watch Netflix and wait out the pandemic.

Sharing memes does not constitute a collective experience. Posting in social media is akin to worrying – it creates the illusion that we’re doing something of value while afraid. It’s worth noting that our responses to this pandemic are not dissimilar to school shootings, natural disasters, or other far-reaching traumatic experiences. Our thoughts, prayers, and positive vibes need to not only be viewed for the trite expressions they are but also as attempts to buffer ourselves against the fear we could be similarly afflicted.

That distance is cognitive dissonance based on embracing illusions. Here’s the illusion currently approaching: Are we collectively awaiting things, “getting back to normal?” Julio Vincent Gambuto does an amazing job in this recent piece of describing how advertisers will lull us back into stagnation and the opportunities we'll miss if we succumb.

Normalcy is never more desirable than when we’re experiencing a loss to our status quo. Ideally, we’ll come through the quarantine with greater gratitude for the things we took for granted, but will we be transformed by the experience? The long list of undesirable aspects of our cultural normalcy already included salient negative impacts of trauma. What shall our response be moving forward?

Ideally, we choose what a mental health therapist would refer to as “post-traumatic growth.” If you’re anything like me, you don’t grow by leaps and bounds on your good days. I grow in response to adversity and pain. I experience life as a never-ending series of adjustments. My hope is to make them with far greater grace and readiness. Too often, we go kicking and screaming into growth and healing.

I see post-traumatic growth as being similar to what my friends in AA call being a, “grateful recovering alcoholic.” As counterintuitive as that statement appears to the uninitiated, it’s meaning is simple: If not for having experienced the disease, we’d never have sought the consequent growth and healing in other parts of our lives.

Given that all of us have experienced a pandemic, no matter how diverse our experiences, we are all faced with opportunities to become greater individually and collectively. I am mindful of the surge we’re likely to see in the demand for quality mental health services. My hope is that instead of pursuing growth individually, we’ll seek it in the company of kindred spirits. All of us are capable of offering support, and it’s more important than ever that we do so.

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