Yes, You Can Get Stronger Post-Pandemic
Over 15,000 lives lost. Nearly half a million people infected. Millions of jobs lost. Nearly all of us forced into isolation. As a nation of over 327 million people, we are all feeling the effects and being traumatized. For some of us, it may develop into posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that affects approximately 3.5% of American adults.
PTSD has been making headlines in recent years as awareness about the condition grows, but there’s another side to trauma that few people know about. In some people, trauma can actually lead to something positive. And during these unprecedented times, it may spark post-pandemic growth.
What Trauma Does to the Brain
First, let’s look at the effects of trauma on brain activity. Brain imaging research has shown that PTSD is associated with hyperactivity in the amygdala (the brain’s fear center) and other emotional parts of the brain. It also leads to decreased activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the region involved in impulse control, judgment, empathy, and forethought. This means that people who suffer from trauma can have heightened fear responses (high amygdala activity) and lower self-control (lower PFC activity).
The combination of heightened fear and lowered self-control is a prescription for trouble and often leads people to try to self-medicate. Common forms of self-medication, such as alcohol, opiates, marijuana, or a diet laden with sugar and foods that turn to sugar, can help to calm the amygdala and anxiety in the short run, but they also reduce the activity of the PFC even more, giving someone less control over these behaviors. It all adds up to further trouble, including addictions and obesity.
But it doesn’t have to.
Strive for the “Post-Pandemic Growth”
One of the most exciting areas of trauma research is in posttraumatic growth (PTG). The term was coined in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
They have found that whenever a group of people is traumatized—as we are all currently being traumatized—about 10% will develop PTSD. Considering our current population, this means that following the pandemic, about 30 million people could develop symptoms of PTSD, such as nightmares, flashbacks, or feeling numb. Approximately 80% of people will return to their normal baseline within a few months. Another 10% will actually be stronger than they were before the trauma happened—they will experience post-pandemic growth.
Achieving this type of growth is based on 5 factors that can improve symptoms of distress. The mnemonic SPARK can help you remember them. Here’s a look at how some people are already planting the seeds for post-pandemic growth.
- A deepening of Spiritual life, a significant change in one’s belief system, a new or stronger sense of meaning and purpose. For example, one woman said she felt guilty about staying home and felt like she wasn’t doing enough to help people with coronavirus. However, by staying at home, she is actually being heroic for doing the right thing to help prevent the spread of the virus. You are too. If you’re staying at home, you’re saving lives, which can give you a stronger sense of purpose.
- Seeing new Possibilities because of the trauma or grief. New opportunities have emerged from the situation, opening up possibilities that were not present before. What are the possibilities you’re going to experience in your life because of the imposed quarantine? Are you learning a new skill or changing the way you do business? For example, in the healthcare industry, some providers have had to introduce telemedicine practically overnight. Amen Clinics has been using telehealth for 30 years. With patients in 120 countries, some foreign patients may come to the clinic for a scan, but all follow-up appointments are via phone, Zoom, or some other form of video conferencing. Try to embrace the possibilities this situation presents.
- Increased Appreciation of life in general; better at appreciating each moment. With COVID-19 stomping around the globe like Godzilla making people afraid, this may be the first time you’re faced with a real fear of death. But when you come to terms that death is inevitable, it can make you realize that you need to truly enjoy this gift of life. You can flip this to a positive by using this time to ask yourself, “What is important to me?” Is it your family? Your career? Giving to others? You can begin building more appreciation for life while you’re in quarantine so it will flourish when things get back to some semblance of normalcy.
- A change in Relationships or relating to others in more meaningful ways than before the trauma occurred. There is an increased sense of connection. People appreciate family and friends more. During this pandemic when people are being forced to shelter at home, it’s an ideal time to deepen your relationships with loved ones. One Amen Clinics patient is married to a professional athlete, who is typically traveling for much of the year. But now, he is able to be home with their young children, and it’s turned out to be a great opportunity for family bonding. What are you doing to enhance your relationships?
- Increased sense of Kick-ass personal strength. This is seen in expressions such as, “If I lived through that I can live through anything!” Now is the time to work on your mental toughness. You need to practice mental hygiene and disinfect your thoughts on a regular basis, just like you wash your hands multiple times a day. To begin planting the seeds for post-pandemic growth, start making the following part of your daily habits:
- Start each day with, “Today is going to be a great day.”
- End each day with “What went well today?”
- Before making any decisions, ask yourself, “Is this good for my brain or bad for it?”
- Whenever you feel mad, sad, nervous, or out of control, write down your thought and ask yourself, “Is it true?”
In this current time of coronavirus-fueled trauma, ask yourself what changes you can start making now to spark post-pandemic growth. According to Dr. Tedeschi, as many as 90% of trauma survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth. Which aspect of your life can you improve?
If you’re struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or other mental health issues, you aren’t alone—45% of Americans say the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their mental health. Just because you’re sheltering at home doesn’t mean you have to wait for the pandemic to be over before seeking help. In fact, during these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting to get treatment is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples, as well as in-clinic brain scanning to help our patients. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.