Post-traumatic growth: How COVID helps us change for the better and refocus priorities

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Dr. Michael Wilkes explains that people can experience post-traumatic growth from the coronavirus pandemic. “We can come to appreciate life in new ways, build new relationships and connections, develop new hobbies and learning opportunities, identify strengths, and perhaps even find some spiritual change,” he says. Photo by Shutterstock.

Merced is the only California county that’s still in the purple tier of the state's reopening plan. Just a month ago, more than half the counties in the state were stuck in that tier. Progress in the fight against COVID-19 seems to come in spurts, at times two steps forward and one step back. And so, some people are thinking about how to use these challenges — both individual and collective — to pave the way toward a better future. KCRW talks about this with Dr. Michael Wilks, professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis. 

KCRW: Is there any information on how we've dealt with the pandemic emotionally and mentally?

Michael Wilkes: “The military has a scheme for understanding how we deal with challenges or disasters. And we’ve come to understand that when we're faced with a series of challenges, we all seem to transverse through some common steps, although not at the same pace. 

They've described this sort of pre-disaster phase, which includes processing warnings and assessing threats. 

The impact phase, which is dealing with logistics and coming to terms with how we're going to deal with our newly constructed lives and working through grief.

The honeymoon phase, which is where we're feeling a little bit more positive that we can finally make it through this.

And the disillusion phase, which is this increased stress and fatigue and sort of questioning ourselves, our optimism fades. 

And then finally, the reconstruction phase, which is this building a new beginning.”

Is this the time when we start to lay the foundation for that new beginning?

“It is. We're beginning to look forward to this reconstruction. As we've learned this week, with blood clots, and the J&J vaccine, there are going to be setbacks, and those are going to push us perhaps back toward disillusionment, hopefully temporarily.

All of us are in different places, depending on our personal and community circumstances. But I certainly hope that some are contemplating positive changes that they've made during the pandemic that they maintain going forward. 

Some people have found relationships have been challenged, but others have reconnected with old old friends and acquaintances. Some people have developed new hobbies, but have struggled without their old routines. And many of us have had to negotiate and navigate great loss and depression and anxiety. 

We should pay attention to what some have described as the three opportunity zones: the fear zone, the learning zone, and the growth zone. But which foot is in which zone varies from person to person and day today.”

I think a lot of people just want to put this all behind them. Is there a way to spend more time in the learning zone or the growth zone?

“There is and this all resonates with me as I'm seeing people struggle on to see the positives. 

About 25 years ago, two psychologists introduced the concept of post-traumatic growth. In a nutshell, what they found was that people who endure psychological struggle following some adversity often see positive growth afterwards. We can come to appreciate life in new ways, build new relationships and connections, develop new hobbies and learning opportunities, identify strengths, and perhaps even find some spiritual change.”

Can you share some examples?

“There are some things that we can ask ourselves. For example, what have I learned about myself that I want to bring going forward? What coping strategies have I learned that I can apply in the future? How can I improve my connections with others moving forward? And how can I remember to practice gratitude? 

A pandemic might be exactly what it took for us to slow down and find meaning in our life. So now, looking back, we might find that we have fundamentally changed in some ways that are actually positive.”

Are there steps we can take to find those positive outcomes?

“I guess the first strategy is to pause for self reflection and ask ourselves how am I doing? Am I feeling isolated? Are my relationships suffering? What has helped me cope?

We also need to be alert to avoiding maladaptive coping. For me, this  maladaptive coping means working around the clock without breaks or checking in with family or friends. But for others, it could mean using drugs or alcohol, or constantly being angry. So as we look forward, we don't mean to negate the depth of our struggles, nor do we want to send a message that everybody should be in the same place. 

Part of the growth is knowing where we are, and having compassion for ourselves. Please show yourself the grace you deserve in having weathered this incredible storm over the past year or so. It's easier sometimes to do it for others than it is to do it for ourselves.”




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman