This past year, we found ourselves in a crisis—slammed with fear, forced to adapt quickly to new situations that we had never experienced before. Many of us lost jobs, loved ones, and hope.
Humans are resilient, however. At the exact moment when we think we are going to break, there is a seed of strength and a unique opportunity to rebuild and transform—to develop new understandings of ourselves and how to live life.
This phenomenon is called post-traumatic growth.
Developed in the 1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, post-traumatic growth is defined as, “positive psychological change as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.” It’s actually an ancient concept that has appeared in religious and philosophical teachings for thousands of years. We want to make meaning from suffering.
I know this is possible from personal experience. Last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and grew in ways I hadn’t expected or planned in trying to make sense of it—developing a deeper connection to my purpose, the people I love, and finally letting go of old patterns and beliefs that no longer served me. My life now feels richer, more integrated.
So, there can be an upside to the downside. It doesn’t cancel out the downside, but rather coexists alongside it. And there’s no rush to find it. In your own time, you can begin to make sense of the tragedy and trauma that has engulfed us all this year.
Here are the five key areas of post-traumatic growth, along with a method for unlocking them:
1. Greater Appreciation of Life
Developing a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for what we have or a sense of “feeling lucky” is a common element in the experience of many people who have struggled with major difficulties. Being confronted with the possibility of losing them brings a deeper appreciation of the little things. We can also find joy in things we may have formerly taken for granted.
How to Uncover It: Look Around
Pause and take several moments to notice and appreciate the people and things around you, from big to small: a Cardinal outside your window, the calming sound of trees rustling in the breeze, a beautiful sunset, the cozy comfort of your couch, the support of your partner, the curl of your daughter’s hair. Try to name five things.
2. Warmer, More Intimate Relationships
You find out who your real friends are when a challenge hits. The people who show up for you, who support you through your most vulnerable times, become more deeply connected to you. One study of post-traumatic growth in bereaved parents has shown that people realized just how important their connections and relationships were. For me, my mom and I got much closer through my cancer treatment. She was there for every surgery, and we spent more time together than we ever had as adults. It was a gift within the challenge.
How to Uncover It: Nurture Connections
Nurture the connections to those that you love. Don’t keep score on how much you have done for them. Don’t assume people know how you feel about them. Do send a text or make a call to tell them how much you appreciate them. Do deeply listen to them, which is powerful and deepens our bonds.
3. A Greater Sense of Personal Strength
Things that used to be a big deal aren’t anymore. You develop a sense that, “If I can handle this, I can handle anything.” You realize that big problems will either work out or they won’t, but either way, you can deal with it.
How to Uncover It: Practice Positive Self-Talk
Tell yourself that you can handle what comes your way and recall times when you have overcome challenges in the past. Say it out loud. Write it down. Repeating it helps your brain to accept this new belief.
4. Recognition of New Possibilities or Pathways in Life
Post-traumatic growth can also show up as seeing new possibilities in the direction of your life. During my cancer treatment, I became a health coach so that I could help others grow and transform. Influenced by my own struggle, I found a new pathway open up.
How to Uncover It: Reflection
Try journaling to give yourself time to reflect and uncover the thoughts and feelings underneath the surface. Allowing space to process is especially crucial when your experience is more intense or overwhelming. You’ll be amazed by the insights and connections that can come up when you begin to open up this channel.
5. Spiritual Development
Positive change can also come in the form of spiritual growth when going through a crisis. “There often is a greater engagement with the fundamental existential questions,” say Tedeschi and Calhoun. We can develop a closer connection with God, or for those who are not religious, with spirit—experiencing the wisdom of connections to things larger than yourself.
How to Uncover It: Sit in Silence or Meditation
Getting quiet, pausing, and slowing down the mind are powerful ways to connect with spirit, your soul, your authentic self. In this space, there is an absence of fear or a need for approval and it quiets the inner dialogue. I suggest trying meQ’s Acceptance and Dealing with Change meditation.
There is no right way or time to reach the light at the end of a dark time. The important thing is that you honor your authentic journey through the challenges that test your strength. You have the power to craft the narrative that follows.