Peter Gamlen

How will our pandemic trauma translate into emotional growth?

I hate that whenever anything bad happens, there’s always a Karen ready to remind you to look for the silver linings. It feels like the ultimate form of privileged gaslighting to say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In reality, I have barely survived traumas that cut me so deep, I’m certain I have scar tissue on my soul.

While I am clearly not a look-on-the-bright-sider, I do have to admit that some of the most intense traumas I have endured were followed by beautiful periods of personal growth. This phenomenon is real, and it’s called post-traumatic growth. I asked psychologists how we can all transform the collective trauma we’ve all experienced during the pandemic into something beautiful and new.

First of all, while all of the experts I spoke to agreed that dealing with the combined events of the past year — the COVID-19 pandemic, watching democracy crumble, losing loved ones, processing continued racial injustice — can be considered a traumatic experience, that doesn’t mean that everyone will “have trauma” or PTSD. “You are not obligated to feel traumatized by your COVID experience,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist.

Take a moment with that because while it’s easy to feel guilty when other people are suffering and you aren’t, it's not actually helpful for you or anyone else. If you are feeling good right now, great, that means that you have the resources to help people who are having a scarier or less stable experience.

Resources, it seems, may actually be what makes the difference between simply surviving trauma and thriving afterwards. “Post-traumatic growth is growth that happens after being put in a position to be introspective, strengthen social support, improve communications, and think critically,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, an NYC-based psychotherapist. In other words, when you experience a trauma but have a solid stable of tools — therapy, friends, perhaps pets, and meds (if you need them) for example — it can be a catalyst for positive change in your life. In practical terms, that means having the time to be introspective, a community that supports both your pain and your growth, and living a material life that feels safe enough that you can shift out of survival mode into critical thinking.

It feels important to note that not having those resources is not a character flaw — it’s more likely the result of long-standing systemic inequalities. “Moving past just dealing and healing into life-shifting growth is going to be most available for those who have adequate internal and external resources to allow them to face reality and do the challenging work of introspecting and processing trauma,” says Pitagora. Folx from underestimated and under-resourced communities are less likely to have easy access to those resources, Pitagora explains, but that doesn't mean we can’t experience post-traumatic growth, but it does mean we may have to be savvy in how we seek out sources of care.

Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

People with socioeconomic privilege have a leg up on the rest of us here, as usual. But if, for example, someone does not have a solid social support network, they can seek out a therapist to process their pandemic experiences, but because therapy costs a pretty penny, under-resourced folks may have to be creative in finding free or low cost social services. Luckily, there are a lot of low and no cost online support options available right now, from virtual queer grief group processing to psychological services for sex workers. “Surround yourself with others who understand,” Goerlich says. “These are the folks who will hold space for you while you re-enter the world at your own pace.”

It feels important to note that not having those resources is not a character flaw — it’s more likely the result of long-standing systemic inequalities

Being able to thrive after trauma definitely has a social component, but there are also practical things you can do as an individual to make the best of this transitional moment. Goerlich recommends making a list of activities you missed during the pandemic and wish to resume, or things you see others doing and ranking them green, yellow, or red in order to prioritize how you spend your time. “Work to embrace the safe-feeling greens, while slowly integrating one or two more anxiety provoking yellows at a time,” she says. “Give yourself permission to take a good hard look at your ‘red’ list- it's okay if you decide not to return to some of these activities at all, or choose to do so only with stringent hygiene practices in place.”

The keys to healing and growth are dealing with the reality of the situation, Pitagora says. They say that it’s important to put a narrative or a story around our experiences in order to come to grips with that reality. Stories help us get out of denial and into a mental and emotional space where we can think creatively about what we’ve gone through and troubleshoot our future plans. You can do this by journaling about or mind-mapping out what you’ve been through and where you want to go next.

Sharing your experiences helps you process them. If you don’t have a support network, it might be worth it to reach out to like minded individuals on social media. I can tell you from personal experience that there are approximately a bazillion COVID-19 chats happening on Clubhouse right now, and many more about how to design the future world you want to live in.

If confessing your pain and dreams to friends and strangers feels daunting right now, that’s okay. You can start even smaller than that. Goerlich has an emotional pep talk that I think all of us need to hear right now. “Allow yourself to recognize that you have survived a once-in-a-century global event,” she says. “This is a unique experience unlike anything experienced by previous generations — and unlike anything our children or grandchildren are likely to endure ... You are a badass for surviving. And once you recognize just how strong that makes you? Thriving is just around the corner.”