Post-Traumatic Growth Might Be the Silver Lining of Trauma — Here’s How to Harness It

Some people experience growth after hardships

Cassie Shortsleeve
Elemental
Published in
8 min readOct 15, 2020

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A person leans back against a tree with their eyes closed.
Photo: Motoki Tonn/Unsplash

Though the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t officially added to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-3) until 1980, psychologists have known about the very tangible negative physical and psychological consequences of trauma for centuries.

Accounts of trauma date back to the Civil War and earlier, and current events such as the coronavirus pandemic continue to give rise to traumatic times. About half of Americans say the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, per a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and experts say that issues like getting kids back to school, paying rent, or taking care of parents can extend the trauma people feel from the pandemic, upping the likelihood of mental illness.

“I think for most Americans, Covid-19 is likely a major life event stressor, increasing our anxiety and depression due to fear of catching the virus, upheaval of routines, loss of pleasurable activities and social connections, uncertainty about when this will end, loss of jobs and housing, and general economic impact,” explains Joan Cook, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “Some Americans — like those who lost loved ones, those who were infected, those who are in health care, or other essential workers — get a greater dose of the stress of Covid, likely crossing into what we think of as the big ‘T’ trauma.”

“Trauma is about loss and people who are already vulnerable may be more susceptible to loss through this,” adds Jane Shakespeare-Finch, PhD, a professor at the school of psychology and counseling at Queensland University of Technology. That means that while experts aren’t generally seeing PTSD in the “average” American, it is entirely possible to experience trauma from the pandemic if you’re not an essential worker, if you haven’t had Covid, and if no one in your family has died from it.

And while the costs of trauma are well-studied, the idea that some good could come out of even the most traumatic hardships has remained far less understood throughout the years.

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Cassie Shortsleeve
Elemental

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based writer. Her work has been published in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Shape, + other publications. Follow her @cshortsleeve.