Coronavirus is affecting us all, and so we want to remind you that City Psychology Group (CPG) is here, as always, to support your mental health and wellbeing.

 All of our clinicians are now providing therapy sessions via video call or telephone, enabling us to provide you with the same high-quality care as usual.

 Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you are interested in receiving support from CPG, whether for you or for someone else, or just want to find out more.

 

 Wishing you the best of health.

City Psychology Group

Monday 8 June 2020

Growth During Covid-19

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By: Dr Angelica AttardClinical Psychologist

For some of us, the impact of Covid-19 may have been (and may still be) experienced as traumatic.  Van der Kolk and Fisler (1995) described a trauma as“an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms people’s existing coping mechanisms”.According to the ‘theory of shattered assumptions’ (Janoff-Bullman, 1992), we go about life with a particular view of how the world works and of our place in it, however, a traumatic event can shatter this.

For some of us, the distress that this causes can lead to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (though not everyone who experiences a traumatic experience will develop this diagnosis). Research has also illuminated that there can be another side of trauma, which is known as ‘Posttraumatic Growth’.

Posttraumatic growth

The term posttraumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) means that even though we may have preferred not to experience a trauma in the first place, we may find that we don’t just cope with the trauma, but actually grow stronger and develop richer life experiences. Although not everyone who goes through trauma, experiences growth, research has shown that for some people posttraumatic growth can show up in 5 core ways as they:

  1. Have a greater appreciation of life and what their priorities are
  2. Identify new opportunities
  3. Develop a greater awareness of their personal strengths
  4. Form closer and enriched relationships
  5. Experience spiritual renewal and change

Is the concept of posttraumatic growth relevant to the Covid-19 pandemic?

I definitely think it is worth investigating this through systematic research. In the meantime, it may be helpful to explore growth more broadly no matter how traumatic we experienced Covid-19 to be, by asking:

  • What have we discovered?
  • What have we learnt?
  • What has Covid-19 brought to our attention that we did not realise before? 

Growth is not the denial of suffering

This is not an exercise in looking at our lives through rose-tinted glasses to the point that we start denying, ignoring and avoiding the hardships of Covid-19. If we experience growth, it does not mean that we do not suffer. Growth can emerge when we willingly choose to connect and engage with our painful thoughts and feelings rather than avoid them. In this way we can start to understand how our lives have been turned upside down by a traumatic experience and to come to terms with what we have been through.

It is through this process that we can then start to rebuild a new narrative about who we are, about our life, and the world that now includes the experience of living through and of coping with a global pandemic as part of our life story.

Here are some of the reflections I have added to my own story.

  • Joining each other in our pain

Before Covid-19 began, many of us were already struggling with sadness, uncertainty, fears, grief, trauma, and self-isolation for other reasons such as physical and mental health difficulties, or having experienced other adverse life events (e.g.: bereavement, break ups, motor vehicle accidents, redundancies). Even with invaluable support from professionals, family, colleagues, managers, or friends, we may have still experienced moments of suffering which can be a lonely experience. This is no one’s fault because ultimately, no one is living through our unique type of pain, in exactly the same way, at that same moment. This is where support groups (for example Parkinson’s disease, cancer, substance misuse, domestic violence, anxiety, depression and many others) can add that extra dimension by bringing us closer to people going through similar lived experiences.

As the world became affected by Covid-19, clients and friends told me that it was as though people started to join them in some aspects of their suffering as they started to experience bouts of self-isolation, anxiety, and sadness too. If, for instance, someone felt ashamed about being made redundant, the shame started to fade as more people gradually joined them in experiencing job insecurity, and they felt slightly more understood and less alone. In some way, a large Covid-19 virtual support group was naturally created.

  • Being true to ourselves and each other

Work, ‘busy-ness’, and always doing something, can be a convenient distraction from our underlying struggles that we try to ignore and deny because they are messy and an inconvenience to have to deal with. When Covid-19 brought our lives, routines, and careers to a sudden halt, we found ourselves sitting with many feelings (anxiety, confusion, shock, uncertainty, anger) that kept being triggered (by news and conversations about Covid-19) and that we couldn’t as easily distract from. It is as though overnight, Covid-19 created a natural exposure experiment where we had to drop our distraction mechanisms, be honest with ourselves, sit with our uncomfortable feelings, and start to deal with them; an experiment that, as a psychologist, I may have taken months to set up in therapy with a client!

Furthermore, it was incredible to see that this became a shared experience. Colleagues started to talk to each other about how they were feeling, and family members and friends started having more emotionally intimate conversations with each other. Usually many of us invest a lot of effort and energy in pretending we are OK, hiding signs of weakness, and presenting a facade that says ‘I’ve got it all under control’. The shared tragedy of Covid-19 seems to have given us shared permission to be honest with ourselves and each other about our feelings and to be vulnerable together. To me, this is a true display of courage.

  • Adaptability

When Covid-19 forced us into a new reality, a light started to be shone on how well we can problem solve and how resourceful we are.  Individuals, organisations, and countries were sharing information, resources, and words of encouragement as we had no choice but to think outside of the box and be more flexible about how we lived our new indoor reality. Quickly we started to adapt.

We may have discovered that there doesn’t have to be one way of living and working. For months now we have had no choice but to work more flexibly. There is an opportunity for leaders to consider setting up safe and trusting work cultures, where employees are empowered to continue getting their job done whilst working flexibly based on their individual needs and preferences. This can enable employees to feel trusted and empowered to take responsible choices where they remain effective in their job as well as prioritise their well-being.

  • Interconnectedness

I have been struck by how interconnected we are as a species, something which I have not fully appreciated until now. Everything is connected to everything else and the outcome of something is the input for something else. My health is dependent on my neighbour’s health, who’s health is dependent on their partner’s health, who’s health is dependent on their colleague’s health etc. The economy of some countries is dependent on the tourism industry, which is dependent on the transport industry, which is dependent on the manufacturing industry, which is dependent on natural resources etc. Being so interconnected has highlighted how everyone in the chain is invaluable. We really all need to look out for and take care of one another because if one of us in the chain falls, it could be a domino effect, and the most vulnerable of us would suffer the most.

  • Seeing each other as a whole

Covid-19 has given us a chance to see that the people we interact with are much more than the singular roles we may experience them in on a daily basis. Working from home has blurred the boundaries and broken down barriers somewhat, as we have experienced each other in our homes. We may have had opportunities to discover the colour of each other’s bath robes, to see our boss being a mother as she deals with her child popping up on a Zoom meeting, to meet the loyal pets that we have heard so much about. There is something rich and humbling about experiencing each other in this multi-dimensional way and it is a lovely reminder of how we are all human beings living through messy lives in the best way we can.

  • What truly matters?

When Covid-19 brought London to a halt, I was struck by the silence in the City and I must tell you that I found it beautiful! At that moment I realised how much I had been craving it. On a daily basis we can experience so much noise without realising, both externally (rumbling of car engines, building work, advertisements) and internally (the relentless chatter in our minds: I’m not good enough, I’m a phoney, I don’t belong, I am stupid, I’m bad, I’m not important).

Covid-19 may have unintentionally offered us a ‘Refresh and Restart’ button to help us think about what really matters, what sounds we want to pay attention to, and how we can take action to reduce unnecessary noise in our lives. This is particularly relevant as countries lift their lockdown restrictions and before we automatically rush back into the life we had.

We may discover that:

We want to spend more time in nature | protect family mealtimes | invest in a hobby | spend quality time with our children | leave a job that no longer suits us | take better care of ourselves | be more honest with ourselves | hug trees | express gratitude| detox more often from social media, etc, etc.

We may discover that:

We have been investing a lot of time and energy in chasing a better version of ourselves and of our lives. We may discover that what truly matters is already here now. The goodness in us and what we need in our life has been here all along. We just needed to see it and to listen. 

Now wouldn’t these be incredible discoveries?

References

Janoff-Bullman R. Shattered assumptions. Towards a new psychology of trauma. New York: Free Press; 1992.

Tedeschi RG, Calhoun LG. Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychol Inq. 2004;15:1–18.

Van der Kolk BA., Fisler RE. Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: overview and exploratory study. J Trauma Stress. 1995;8:505–525.

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