Post-traumatic growth; shared experiences and supporting each other

27 JUL 2020

COVID got us talking more about how we are thinking and feeling. What is the benefit of sharing experiences and how do we continue having open conversations with each other?

Going through an event such as a pandemic can be traumatic. Talking about your experience with others who have gone through the same event can be helpful. During the height of the COVID pandemic, and now as we return to somewhat normal in Western Australia, people have opened up to talk about how the situation made them feel. Calls to support services such as Lifeline over the March to April period rose 51% compared to 2019. We have also seen an increase in people talking about mental health in general, reducing stigma and opening up conversations across the nation. 
While everyone’s experience of the COVID pandemic will be different, there is something comforting about talking about experiences and connecting with others. The concept of post-traumatic growth has been used to study people’s responses and resilience to things such as natural disasters. Here we look at post-traumatic growth in the context of COVID and how it could enable us to stay connected and feel supported. 

What is post-traumatic growth?
In stressful situations, primal instincts generally kick in and determine how we respond and cope. Most people know about the concept of ‘fight or flight’, an automatic response that humans have to a threat. However, there is research that shows humans also have a ‘tend and befriend’ response to adverse situations. In this case, when a threat is perceived, hormones such as oxytocin are released which enable humans to build and maintain relationships as well as build empathy. The ‘tend and befriend’ response promotes traumatic growth after an event like a pandemic by increasing things such as resilience, self-confidence and empathy. While these things sound great, you may be wondering how we can work towards post-traumatic growth.

Communal Coping
Facing a crisis collectively, rather than alone is the first step toward post-traumatic growth. A study of people from Hong Kong who went through the SARS pandemic found that post-traumatic growth was felt by people who shared their experiences of the pandemic with others. People also found that paying more attention to their mental health enabled them to seek help when needed and have empathy for others. Sharing stories about your COVID experience with others can help normalise the things that have happened to you and how you may be feeling. 
A further step in gaining post-traumatic growth is to feel connected to others. This could be in the form of helping people or contributing to a community, maintaining social connections and activities made during the pandemic or reaching out to services that have been set up to support people impacted by the pandemic. This is the crux of the ‘tend and befriend’ response as people can increase their sense of purpose and connection to others.

Validate your own and others’ experiences
While sharing stories of an event can promote positive mental health outcomes it is important to remember that not everyone’s experience will be the same.
When speaking to someone about their experience of COVID, acknowledge what they are saying, the difficulties they have faced and how they have processed the situation. An example of this would be ‘What you’ve experienced is extremely difficult, it sounds like you are doing your best to cope at the moment’. Try not to problem solve for the person as this can be overwhelming and could seem dismissive.
Validating your own experiences or having someone else validate them is also important. Acknowledge how difficult the situation has been and talk about it with others you know will understand. Be compassionate towards yourself and give yourself time to adapt to new situations. Acknowledge that your emotions make sense in the situation and accept that it is okay to have that emotion.
Validating our own and others’ experiences leads to more open conversations. By acknowledging and sharing our own emotions, thoughts, and feelings at this time, we can work towards post-traumatic growth not only as individuals, but as a community.
If you are finding it hard to cope, reach out to services set up to support people such as the Beyond Blue COVID support line 1800 512 348 or the WA THINK Mental Health site
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Image Credit: Photo by Ales Me on Unsplash