There’s a scene in the Shawshank Redemption in which the main character, payed by Tim Robbins, escapes from his wrongful prison conviction, literally climbing through a tunnel of sh*t. The scene is a great metaphor for what surviving trauma feels like.
Trauma can develop when we experience something so scary it threatens our sense of safety. Commonly recognized sources of trauma include assault, physical or sexual abuse, natural disaster, and car accidents. It can also result from childhood neglect, medical treatment, witnessing violence, and emotional abuse.
Trauma causes sensations, emotions, and thoughts that can feel overwhelming. When this happens, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But, like the classic children’s story goes, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we can’t go around it — we’ve gotta go through it.”
The Trauma of Coronavirus
Currently, many in our global community are experiencing trauma as a result of the rapid spread of COVID-19. Life as we know it has been upended and we are living in isolation from each other to keep ourselves and our communities safe from the virus’ spread. At the same time, our physical, social, economic, and professional wellbeing are at risk. When everyone is scared and going through a communal trauma, a collective emotional reaction naturally occurs.
This shared community reaction has the potential to bond us together and facilitate growth. It seems that if we can imagine ourselves as having likeness toward others, our acceptance of others grows. As a psychotherapist, I witness routinely how acceptance usually leads us to compassion.
Post-Traumatic Growth as a Community
When we have acceptance and compassion toward ourselves, we grow by allowing ourselves the space to actually feel. When we direct that goodwill toward others, it yields the same result.
Deirdre Fay, LICSW, a trauma therapist and author, suggests that fire causes ruin but it also makes way for regeneration. In other words, when we allow ourselves to heal and grow from trauma, it can end up fertilizing us to create a beautiful aftermath of flowers.
We, as a people, can grow after a trauma by learning that we are stronger than we previously believed. This process is known as Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) and can result in greater resiliency, flexibility, and adaptability following trauma.
PTG refers to the idea that that in addition to the challenges presented by trauma, many people also experience some positive psychological effects. Experiencing something traumatic can cause a person to have a greater appreciation for life, for their loved ones, and for their own inner strength. These positive repercussions in no way negate the negative ones, but they often coexist.
According to researchers, we can achieve PTG by increasing our appreciation for our lives, our relationships with others, and our personal strengths, as well as recognizing the possibility of a renewed life and spiritual change.
Action Steps Toward Growth
Imagine a time you felt a sensation of true internal warmth. What scene comes to mind? What feelings or sensations arise in your body? How does your body react? Maybe a smile creeps across your face, or the tension in your shoulders relaxes, maybe something else happens or doesn’t.
Psychologist Stephen Hayes, who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, suggests that when we take notice of small acts of kindness, or embrace appreciation of life’s small things, this can change how we feel. In Psychologists off the Clock, he offers an example: next time you’re waiting in line — at an airport, a grocery store, a shopping mall — notice the connections between others —a dad patting a son on the head, a clerk smiling at a customer, a person holding the elevator for another.
He posits that, as we take notice of the positive interactions, our stress cup — the maximum amount of stress we think we can hold before becoming overwhelmed — dumps out stress to make room for another experience. The more we do this, the more room we make in our stress cups for other types of feelings. This is one approach that can help us function amidst the widespread uncertainty we’re all facing.
An important distinction here is that we can have concern versus control. We can have ample concern, but our level of control is far more limited. Acknowledging this distinction and creating plans for ourselves within our control empowers us to not become frozen in a traumatized state. Positivity can cause as strong of a chain reaction as negativity. By spreading light in these dark times, we can allow ourselves greater control over our present situations.
In an effort to encourage a domino effect of positivity, I encourage you to take notice of the things that help you feel balanced, practice healthy habits, consider the positives effects you hope to see in the world, and notice moments of kindness that you can cherish. Once we’ve put out the fire, I believe our world will not only rise from the ashes, but prosper, too.
Need Extra Support?
Worry, sadness, anger and loneliness are all natural responses to the rapid changes wrought by COVID-19. For people with histories of trauma, the fear and isolation can be especially triggering. If you’re struggling to manage these emotions, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for support.