By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
COVID-19 effect: As weeks morph into months, the curve of Covid-19 cases continues to rise. Though lockdown restrictions have eased in most states, people are ridden with angst of various guises. While the fear of contracting Covid-19 casts an overarching shadow over our lives, other stressors can be equally, if not more, pressing. Job losses and bleak business prospects have jolted many across generations. Students in Grades 10 and 12 are plagued by uncertainties over examinations. Pupils without access to digital devices have to contend with yawning gaps in their learning. College-goers are unable to make plans regarding higher studies or potential jobs as doubt and instability are now defining features of our world. Elderly people, living on their own, have to contend with social isolation while fending for themselves. And, those who have lost relatives or friends to the pandemic have to grieve without the usual social supports we rely on in a time of crisis.
Sharp uptick in mental health problems
Given this dismaying scenario, Dr. Achal Bhagat, senior consultant psychiatrist at Apollo Hospitals, predicts a sharp uptick in mental health problems, as per a report in HT on 5 May 2020, across various demographics. From health workers to lay citizens to those with pre-existing psychological problems, we are likely to witness increases in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and substance-abuse.
While stressful events are known to exacerbate mental health issues, there is also a flipside to trauma that isn’t widely known by most people. That negative life experiences can also result in positive and enduring changes has now been established in the scientific literature.
Understanding post-traumatic growth
Termed “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, this phenomenon refers to growth or positive transformations by people who endure adversity but later emerge stronger or wiser. Simply knowing that PTG can also be an offshoot of these troubling times can help stem our collective anxieties from ratcheting up.
Writer and health reporter, Lorna Collier, differentiates between resilience and PTG in an article in Monitor in Psychology. Whereas resilience refers to a person bouncing back to their pre-trauma selves, PTG involves fundamental shifts in a person’s worldview and beliefs.
In fact, researchers posit that less resilient people are more likely to experience PTG as they are more likely to be shaken at an elemental level than people with stronger dispositions. While vulnerable people may experience intense suffering and psychological pain, with time, they may try to make sense of their distress. As a result, they may find new meaning in life, typically in one of five domains, aver Tedeschi and Calhoun. These include personal strength, an openness to new possibilities, an appreciation of life, stronger relationships and spiritual growth.
Post Traumatic Growth: Approach of Clinical psychologists
Clinical psychologists, Jay Behel and Jennifer Coleman, remind us that PTG “is a process” involving highly individualistic responses and becomes evident only after the adversity has passed, and the person has had time to work though his or her grief and concomitant thoughts.
Psychologist Jordon Scotti recommends that we first “acknowledge the difficulty of this ordeal.” However, instead of ruminating over the loss of loved ones or missed opportunities, reflect on whether these trials have brought new meaning or purpose to your life. While the pandemic may have thwarted your life plans, it may also shift your perspective on the big questions that really matter.
Finding ways to cope with adversity
A cancelled board exam may seem catastrophic right now, but it also gives you an opportunity to re-examine your plans and priorities. Entering the job market in a shaky economy may seem unfair. But it may imbue you with a more flexible and creative outlook that you didn’t know you were capable of. Losing a dear family member to Covid-19 is indeed a harsh blow but with time you may discover new dimensions or capabilities you weren’t aware of. Though these arguments may ring hollow in the midst of a crisis, I would like to conclude this article with a personal anecdote that cemented my belief in PTG.
I lost my father in a tragic road accident at the age of eleven. My mother, who was then 44 years old, was left with three young daughters to raise single handedly. Up until my dad’s death, he was the sole breadwinner and had handled the family’s finances exclusively. Around six-months after my dad’s death, we saw my meek and mild-mannered mother, who had never worked outside the house before, morph into a capable, determined and gritty multi-tasker. By stepping up on all fronts, she surprised herself and the extended family.
Besides continuing to be the caring mom she always was, she now embarked on a career in a small computer firm as a technical writer and documentation officer, learning about software and data management, fields she had never been exposed to earlier. Additionally, she managed the family finances adroitly and motivated her daughters to pursue their passions, without necessarily bowing to social trends.
While my father’s death was deeply traumatic, the manner in which my mother emerged from it emboldened the family to face life head on. Knowing that adversity can sometimes bring about unexpected gains can be both reassuring and inspiring.
(The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Views expressed are the author’s own.)