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Post-Traumatic Growth

Post-Pandemic Blues?

Do you sometimes miss the pandemic? If so, you're not alone.

Key points

  • Some appreciated aspects of lockdown, like less travel, a slower pace, time with family—and that's OK.
  • We all were traumatized to a greater or lesser degree by the pandemic but took away positives as well.
  • "Posttraumatic growth" is real, and we can harness it for our health.
Gert Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gert Altmann/Pixabay

It’s OK to admit you might miss the pandemic sometimes. Not everything about it, but a few things. Maybe showing up to work in your pajamas. Or having an excuse to order more take-out. Maybe it’s near-access to the fridge, working diligently on your “COVID-19.” Or FaceTiming someone you love, knowing they’d actually be home and pick up. Health care appointments from the comfort of your couch, especially psychotherapy? More time with kids (OK, maybe not that one). Flexible hours at work, more time to read/cross-stitch/jigsaw puzzle/talk on the phone? A chance to write/paint/meditate….

The pandemic was hell, don’t get me wrong. In lives lost, it was tragic beyond anything we could imagine. Add on inequity, terror, isolation, and mental health fallout, just for starters. I imagine precious few thrived in the pandemic. “Hanging in there,” was ostensibly as good as you could feel during lockdown, and that’s real. I think only couples who liked each other, without kids, did well. Couples who didn’t like each other suffered. Badly. They couldn’t divorce because there were no courts. They couldn’t escape because…. Well, we were trapped at home. But couples who got along? They were in a good groove. Or so they told me (and so I imagined, other people on the planet actually having fun).

I was holed up as a single mom with two testosterone-reeking teen boys, both much bigger than I am—the older, angry because he was trapped away from friends and avoiding going to school on Zoom (this, I admit, made me a tad bit… incensed); the younger, an autistic kid who sometimes can’t communicate and expresses wants and needs by biting, kicking, throwing glass, iPads, computers (I have scars), even though he’s normally loving and kind. In sum: My pandemic household constituted a personal circle of hell.

So I’m not minimizing; I’m suggesting something additional offered by the pandemic. Our capacity to grow. To adapt and evolve. We didn’t come this far from cave days (though some might say cave days would be an improvement on what we’ve got going now, and I might agree)—we didn’t get this far by not adapting. We’ve had a lot of things thrown at us as humans, and we’ve rolled with them in one way or another to still be alive.

Posttraumatic Growth

I’m talking about posttraumatic growth (PTG). I didn’t make this up, it’s real. Defined, it’s “positive psychological changes experienced as a result of the struggle with trauma or highly challenging situations.” In other words, PTG equals good things we take away from bad experiences. Let’s admit it. We were all traumatized on some level by the pandemic. Some by huge, massive, hole-in-the-heart-wrenching trauma, death, terrifying hospitalizations, streets transformed into refrigerator-truck morgues, and more. But most of us, gratefully, survived run-of-the-mill trauma. That’s still trauma though, and it's OK to own it.

People demur, “I shouldn’t feel bad, I have no right, all those others had it so much worse.” And, yes, they did. Millions died, trails of grief still and forever radiating like pebbles in a huge pond. But this is not the Pain Olympics. Everyone has a right to individual pain. Nobody else suffering—no matter how severe—will feel better if you hold on to your guilt about feeling trauma or pain. It’s yours alone to experience and feel.

At the same time, you can own your posttraumatic growth. Posttraumatic stress and growth are not mutually exclusive. Somehow, in some ways, you probably adapted. And you may even miss COVID sometimes. That unhurried cup of coffee. The silence in the morning, an unrushed shower. The time gifted back to your day by not commuting. Creativity borne of time (forced or not) alone, calmer. Maybe even having time to be bored.

Friends and patients who are true introverts reveled in the lockdown, insisting, “Finally, everyone can see how I’d rather live!” They had the hardest time with “re-entry anxiety” though, when lockdown lifted. Some of us forgot social graces and how to be comfortable in public; our social muscles atrophied. Some still struggle. We go to a party or public event and feel overstimulated. We fumble at chatting up the cashier at the grocery store. Kids and teens lost socialization time in school and fell “behind” socially as well as academically. So did we.

Most of us welcomed a return to “real life,” myself included. No more fabricky masks and wishing I could inhale draughts of fresh Pacific Northwest air. Hugging—OMG, I missed hugging so much—I had such touch hunger—I invented "back hugs" to be safe but get a touch fix. Eating in restaurants, watching people in public, movies in theaters, concerts, lectures—I missed it all. I was giddy at its return. I took part in a euphoric James Taylor concert (a teen heartthrob—"How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You"!) shortly after quarantine. Taylor admitted he’d released a 2020 album… straight into a big, black hole.

But we harvested good things, too, and that’s the PTG. Technically, there are five areas that make up PTG:

  • Appreciation of life
  • Relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change

Think about it. Were you grateful for small bits, like a slower cup of tea or the luxury of spending time with your partner/kid/friend/sister in a relaxed, meaningful way? Did it make relationships closer and more intimate? Did new paths open in your mind? Maybe a side hustle making divine fudge like your grandmother, or going back to school, or climbing that mountain (I’m an Oregonian; this is a real thing). Did you handle the purgatory of non-stop kids underfoot better than you expected? Put aside time to meditate, or Zoom to synagogue/mosque/church? These all are examples of PTG. The pandemic held precious few silver linings, but PTG is definitely one.

Personally, more than anything, I miss decreased driving time and less hustly-bustly running around. Isolation was depressing. I had to make a conscious effort to schedule FaceTime and walks with friends to fill the social void (let alone get in those back hugs!). But I was so grateful for the lack of traffic when I drove downtown to my office. (Daytime Portland was not at all as the media described. It was quiet and beautiful, and parking was never so easy.) I miss days by the fireplace reading, putting together jigsaw puzzles with my kid, and working from home on the computer. I loved the languid pace, the chance to breathe, meditate, step lighter, and practice unfurling, un-rushing. I mused about writing and a slower life after private practice, long-term goals I’ve carried with me and put into practice (hence, this post).

I made it, and so did you. Please, give yourself credit. It’s standard to miss a few pandemic things while wishing the rest complete good riddance. Congratulations, you made it: posttraumatic growth.

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