About six months ago, we got on an emotional rollercoaster and we still don’t know when we’re getting off. During the COVID-19 pandemic, symptoms of anxiety and depression skyrocketed among young adults, containment measures increased the risk of serious disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and a sense of hopelessness seemed to ensnare the world. A global unemployment crisis has followed, while some people are in recovery having contracted the virus; some are mourning the loss of loved ones.
When we’re going through tough times such as these, or if you suffer from anxiety or depression, for example, or find out that you’ve got an illness, you tend to hear about how bad it is and how you spiral downwards. But what is never talked about is how we can actually grow stronger from hardship and obstacles. Science calls this ‘post-traumatic growth’: tough times can make you realise what matters in life and what your priorities are.
How setbacks can make us stronger
Post-traumatic growth can happen regardless of the culture or place you come from: it’s universal. Of course, not everyone who’s been through major stress or trauma experiences the aspects described here, but countless examples from around the world show that great strength can be born out of great tragedy, and that hope is scientifically proven to exist.
We all have core beliefs about the world that ground us: most of us think life is fair and assume that we’ll live to old age. These assumptions give us a sense of stability and help us make sense of current affairs. But when a setback or crisis hits, our core beliefs can shatter. We realise that if we want to make it through to the other end and keep our mental health intact, we might have to re-evaluate many of our beliefs because they’re no longer serving us well. It can force us to take a second look at our fundamental inner truths and in some instances, change them to keep up with a new reality.
This rebalancing of the scales is exactly what’s been happening during the pandemic. We found it initially hard to grapple with—what people have been calling ‘the new normal’— with the changes to the way we spend our free time, with the constant disinfecting and the paranoia of getting sick. People’s mental health took a real nosedive. But as time passed, we became a little more accustomed to what was going on. If we couldn’t go to the pub to meet friends, we started to find enjoyment in new things and began changing our lives to accommodate the situation. Slowly, we got back on our feet.
Why we shouldn’t fear tough times
When we’re going through tough times, it can be hard to cope. But while we’re experiencing internal struggles, we’re also often tapping into great strengths we might not have known we had. We begin to notice new possibilities for the future and may suddenly start to realise the direction that we’d like to take in life. A new appreciation for life is awakened and the little things, such as taking a walk in nature, become a source of joy.
Research has shown that post-traumatic growth is an emotional learning curve. It’s something that can happen on its own without you necessarily being aware of it or even trying to change anything. People who have gone through some of the toughest times, such as a cancer or HIV diagnosis or a car accident that left them disabled, experienced post-traumatic growth. Some of these people were just trying to survive or even questioning whether it was worth it to keep on living.
But after a while, an inner strength emerged, like a small green shoot growing through concrete. They began seeing their life-altering event as something good and were even thankful that it had happened. Some said that without the tragic incident, they couldn’t have become the person they had matured into and it gave them a will to live they didn’t have before. Others changed career paths and took on jobs that made them feel more fulfilled, or started making better choices and left self-destructive paths they have been on.
Building our internal scaffolding
Anytime we’re going through something difficult in life and we endure it, we’re helping to build internal scaffolding. This supports and allows us to handle challenges better in the future, which helps us relate to people differently. We then become more in tune with the world.
In Judith Viorst’s 1986 book Necessary Losses (Simon & Schuster), counsellor Rabbi Harold Kushner reflected on how the loss of his son had changed him:
“I am a more sensitive person… A more sympathetic counsellor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it. And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose, I would forego all of the spiritual growth and depth, which has come my way because of our experiences… But I cannot choose.”
Setbacks are the high price we pay for the added confidence and maturity that we tend to gain. If we want to change fast, it can be hard to do so with therapy, but when a crisis shocks us to the core, it can be the kick we need to start living our best life.
How to move forward
If you’re experiencing some kind of trauma — whether it’s a devastating break-up, financial situation, or you lost someone close to you—there’s no denying that it’s hard. But sometimes we have to learn to set ourselves free if we want to keep our mental health intact. This can be better for our wellbeing instead of trying to hold on to a person who is no longer there for us or trying to change a difficult situation. When we let go and accept the new reality, our anxiety can start to fade and we feel a little more comfortable in the present. When we accept what’s going on, we become more open to new possibilities for the future and can start experiencing renewed vigour for life.
So next time you’re dwelling on something that’s happened, which is making you feel down, try this exercise: think of three benefits that arose out of the circumstance, no matter how nonsensical or silly they may seem. Why was it good that this thing happened and how did it change you? Three things. When you can do this, you might just kickstart a growth process that will put you on the path to becoming a more confident person, a more resourceful person, and an altogether stronger person.
Dr Olivia Remes is a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge