There was plenty of trauma to go around in 2020. But new studies point to a number of ways we might recover and even thrive. Post-traumatic growth refers to positive changes that can happen after a life-shattering event occurs, according to Richard Tedeschi, a clinical psychologist with the Boulder Crest Foundation, an organization that offers recovery programs for combat veterans, first responders, and their families.
“Most people still think that if you suffered trauma, you’re going to be damaged,” Tedeschi says. “We’re talking about something beyond that, where people actually transform into something different from who they were before.”
Worldwide, more than 70 percent of people report exposure to at least one traumatic event in their lives—from the death of a loved one to a life-threatening injury—according to a 2016 study. Nearly a third report at least four events. And while much needed attention has gone into understanding post-traumatic stress disorder and related psychological injuries, some research suggests that positive outcomes are also common after difficult experiences.
In studies that have looked at thousands of combat veterans, Tedeschi says, at least half report some kind of growth, like improved relationships or motivation to take on new opportunities. The process takes time, Tedeschi adds, and often occurs after—or even coexists with—trauma-related struggles, like depression and anxiety.
There are also strategies that support a more positive outcome, says Christy Denckla, a clinical psychologist and research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Social support is a big one, and that includes providing help as much as receiving it. It can be particularly powerful, Tedeschi says, to tap one’s own traumatic experiences in ways that benefit others.
That sense of meaning and connection doesn’t have to involve other humans. Attachment to pets can facilitate post-traumatic growth, too, according to a 2020 study of high school students by Whitney Dominick, a social psychologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Getting outside and cultivating a sense of awe are also good strategies. In her dissertation research, Dominick found that kids who swam with dolphins showed less anxiety and felt a greater sense of support compared with those who went whale-watching. Immersion in an absorbing experience, she suspects, might pull people out of themselves enough to allow healing.
These strategies can facilitate real growth, found Tedeschi and his colleagues. That’s based on a study of 49 combat veterans and first responders who participated in a weeklong program called Warrior PATHH, offered by the Boulder Crest Foundation. Eighteen months after the experience, which includes outdoor activities and the development of a service mission, the researchers documented substantial reductions in PTSD symptoms and large increases on a post-traumatic-growth measurement scale, which assesses things like an appreciation for life and feelings of strength.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Dominick began conducting surveys of adults across the U.S. and has preliminary evidence that people are already experiencing growth in multiple dimensions, especially an appreciation for life, personal strength, and relating to others.
Last year may also have done its part to reshape our brains in good ways. We’ve all been forced to think of new ways of doing things, and mental challenges that break us out of our routines have been linked with brain health and resilience as we age.
Not everyone experiences growth, nor should they feel pressured to. But just knowing that it’s a possibility is hopeful.