Embracing post-traumatic growth during the endemic phase

by Dr. Andi Tri Supratno Musrah and Angelina Laing

2022 marks the third year of COVID-19 but with a different outlook as much of the world embraces the new norms in its endemic phase. Nevertheless, even as the world transitions into endemicity, COVID-19 remains as a traumatic stressor, causing not just mortality, but also economic catastrophe.

Since 2019, the pandemic has affected almost all spheres of human life, including the social and psychological aspects. The World Health Organisation recently reported a massive increase in the number of people experiencing mental health issues, which is essentially a global prevalence of anxiety and depression, mostly due to unprecedented stress.

Thus, the pandemic has not only crippled the global economy, but also poses serious threats to both the physical and psychological well-being of the global populace. Not only are more individuals experiencing mental health issues, but the physical health conditions of individuals with pre-existing illnesses have been exacerbated due to COVID-19 infections.

The spread of pandemic stress worldwide is termed as ‘mass trauma.’ Trauma, in this context, is not restricted to common traumatic events such as war, accidents, assault, or abuse. Billions of people have experienced emotional disturbances, anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress due to COVID-19 restrictions and infections. During the pandemic, people felt unsafe, producing more negative thoughts, and felt more negative emotions because of pandemic-related isolation.

An increase in negative thoughts, negative feelings and a heightened sense of insecurity are the symptoms of this COVID-19 mass trauma. The main indicator of trauma regardless of the event is that individuals with trauma perceive the world as a dangerous place.

As we are in the third year of battling the pandemic, most of us have experienced pandemic-related lockdowns firsthand, or home isolation due to COVID infection. Lockdowns during the pandemic have led to negative psychological changes. Increased stress caused by social isolation undeniably can lead to loneliness.

As employees are used to working within a workplace community, working from home in isolation restricts their social norms of engaging with colleagues and close friends. Pandemic-related isolation is exacerbated when individuals undergo unprecedented suffering and grief for losses alone, whether it is monetary loss or the loss of loved ones.

Despite the mass trauma, there is always light at the end of the tunnel as suffering and distress can be sources of positive change. In other words, suffering potentially possesses transformative power. When trauma survivors see themselves as embarking on searches for meaning or attempts to construct benefits from their traumatic experiences, the condition is described as post-traumatic growth.

The good news that could give us hope as we embrace the endemic phase is that the difficult experiences during the height of the pandemic can lead to post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is the experience of positive changes that occur as a result of life struggles accompanied by highly challenging life crises.

Post-traumatic growth is manifested in many ways, including an increased appreciation for life in general, investing in more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life. Post-traumatic growth tends to surprise people, which often comes unexpectedly as the result of an attempt at making sense of an unfathomable event.

Although we may perceive pandemic-related stress as detrimental to both our physical and psychological well-being, studies have indicated that increased worries and anxiety resulting from the pandemic are congruent with post-traumatic growth. Some general COVID-related worries such as physical health and mental health, and the stress caused by unprecedented changes in familial and social relations, could be the main sources of post-traumatic growth.

This psychological distress can help us stimulate the process of post-traumatic growth. Thus, positive changes after a series of traumatic experience indicate that some degree of psychological upset or distress is necessary to set the process of growth in motion. In addition, some enduring emotional distress in our life events may stimulate the enhancement and maintenance of post-traumatic growth.

A study by Stallard and colleagues (2021) suggested that despite the unfavourable situations caused by COVID-19, most individuals reported that they can identify positive aspects of the pandemic and lockdowns, indicating post-traumatic growth. Stallard and colleagues (2021) further reported that 11 per cent of individuals during a pandemic discovered and embraced new opportunities, 16 per cent experienced spiritual growth, 1 in 5 individuals felt more grateful for life, and 1 in 2 individuals experiences closer familial ties.

This indicates that post-traumatic growth can be characterised as a change agent in prompting positive changes to occur after traumatic events. Such positive changes can be observed in individuals’ improved relationships with others, increased sense of personal strength and self-reliance, increased spiritual beliefs, as well as finding new possibilities and realising a greater appreciation of life.

In addition, individuals who exhibit benefit findings, and engage in a strategy in response to a stressor associated with posttraumatic growth, tend to possess higher levels of well-being with lower levels of depression.

To summarise, the occurrence of post-traumatic growth takes place when individuals bounce back from a traumatic experience to a higher level of functioning than pre-trauma. Post-traumatic growth describes the experience of individuals whose development – at least in some areas – has surpassed what was present before the struggle when a crisis occurs. Individuals who experience post-traumatic growth not only survive the trauma but encounter positive changes that are viewed as essential, which go beyond the previous status quo. Post-traumatic growth is not simply a return to baseline – it is a profound life-changing experience.

Dr. Andi Musrah is Programme Coordinator and an associate lecturer teaching Psychological Sciences in the Faculty of Humanities and Health Sciences at Curtin University Malaysia. His research interests include modelling emotion processing in older adults and individuals with neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Andi can be contacted via email at andi.musrah@curtin.edu.my.

Angelina Laing is a lecturer in the Department of Work Integrated Learning and Language at Curtin Malaysia’s School of Pre-U and Continuing Education (SPACE). Her research interests are in the areas of leadership effectiveness, servant leadership, leadership sustainability, and emotional intelligence. She also has a passion for nature and is a certified PADI diver and certified Reef Check Diver, in addition to being one of the co-advisors of the Curtin Dive Club at Curtin Malaysia. Angelina can be contacted via email at angelina.laing@curtin.edu.my