Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series examining the ways high-stress events can be a trigger for personal growth and improvements to one’s lifestyle.
The coronavirus outbreak is an unprecedented event that is causing intense levels of stress, anxiety and confusion across the country and globe, including among lawyers. But what if the intense stress you are feeling from the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for a positive transformation in your life?
What if your intense stress is a sign that you are much more likely now—compared to before the coronavirus pandemic—to build a happier, more resilient and more meaningful life for the remainder of your days? What if it can be used as a catalyst to become a better version of yourself or to live a more fulfilling life for many years to come?
The science says the above statements are all true. The science says that the intense stress you are feeling, although undoubtedly uncomfortable and undesirable at this moment, is a sign that your life can significantly improve in the long-run. The science says that because of the coronavirus outbreak, you are now in a pivotal moment in your life where you have the opportunity to alter your life’s trajectory and build a more meaningful life that you likely would not have built in the absence of this pandemic.
While post-traumatic stress disorder is a commonly understood term that is part of our national lexicon, relatively few people have heard the term “post-traumatic growth.” The general concept that trauma can lead to positive change is a theme that has appeared in countless philosophical and religious teachings for thousands of years, but it was not until 1995 that the term “Post-Traumatic Growth” was coined by psychologists Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Lawrence Calhoun. Post-traumatic growth (“PTG”) is defined as positive psychological and emotional change experienced as a result of adversity, trauma and other challenges that raises an individual’s level of functioning in or quality of life.
A large number of scientific studies over the last quarter century have revealed that a traumatic or highly challenging event in life can induce individuals to fundamentally restructure or redefine how they perceive themselves, others, and life in ways that bring greater overall well- being and fulfillment. The result is that an event that causes intense stress and trauma can also lead to significant positive change that benefits their life in the long-run.
The research reflects that PTG tends to occur in five general areas:
- Appreciation of life: greater valuing and enjoyment of life, and reduction in taking one’s life for granted.
- Relationships with others: deeper and richer relationships with others, including increases in compassion, empathy and emotional intimacy, and building new patterns and priorities of communicating with and relating to others.
- New possibilities in life: the belief that one can and should pursue opportunities or make decisions that will bring greater meaning, fulfillment, or joy to one’s life, where such options were either ruled out or not considered before the traumatic event.
- Personal strength: improved capacity to cope with future life challenges and increased confidence in oneself (“I got through this, so I can get through anything!”).
- Spiritual change: clarity of life’s meaning, finding of one’s purpose in life, improved sense of harmony with the world, or deeper feeling of connection with God, the Universe, or all of existence.
Major traumatic events in life, such as natural disasters, life-threatening illnesses, near death experiences, the death of a loved one, or terrorist attacks, are actually the events that are most likely to lead to significant improvements in the above five areas. While these events tend to cause the highest degree of stress, they also tend to cause the highest degree of personal growth and transformation.
- In one study, 81% of low-income female African American survivors of Hurricane Katrina whose homes were destroyed or seriously damaged experienced PTG in the years following the disaster.
- In a study of 2,300 survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 87,587 people and injured nearly 400,000 people, it was found that one year after the earthquake, 50.1% of the survivors experienced PTG.
- In a meta-analysis study on the relationship between cancer and PTG that reviewed the history of research on the topic, the study concluded that a cancer diagnosis creates a “fertile ground” for both stress and growth, and that many cancer patients experience PTG over time.
- Several studies have shown that a substantial number of survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks experienced PTG over time.
Why Does This Occur?
The research suggests that traumatic events in life can disrupt or threaten our core beliefs and mindsets about the way the world works or the way we want to live our lives. When the trauma is large enough, the rigid beliefs and behavioral patterns that control our lives can become punctured or undermined, which creates an opening to eventually construct a revised set of core beliefs, priorities and behaviors that bring far greater happiness and fulfillment. Interestingly, the disruption of our core beliefs and rigid patterning leads to a state of intense stress in the short-term; but this very disruption leads to the possibility of a renovation in the long-term. Simply put: first there is a deconstruction, and then an upgraded reconstruction.
Dr. Sharon Dekel, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and one of the world’s leading researchers on PTG, was interviewed for this article. Dr. Dekel shared that “traumatic events that create fear and anxiety can force us to psychologically grow. When we fear for our safety or health or fear that our life isn’t as safe as we believed it was, we may consider ways to change our life.” Dr. Dekel continued that most of us are typically so busy that we don’t find the time to think about our life philosophy or to ask ourselves the deep questions. “But when a traumatic event hits, we often begin asking ourselves, ‘why am I here?’ ‘What is the purpose of this life?’ ‘Why haven’t I proposed to my significant other?’ ‘How can I make my life more meaningful?’” It is through this process of self-inquiry—which is far more likely to occur in the midst of and aftermath of a traumatic event—that we begin to better understand ourselves and eventually make changes to our life or belief system that we likely would not have made in the absence of the event.
Dr. David Spiegel, the Associate Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University, explains that traumatic events “can cause us to see life as more fragile and precious, which can lead us to change our priorities and develop altered views on how we want to live our life.” According to Dr. Spiegel, when a person goes through a traumatic event, they can come out the other end with a newfound sense of perspective and resiliency. “The things that used to stress or irritate me no longer do. So my life is fundamentally different.”
Intense Stress Is Typically Necessary
Interestingly, the scientific data shows that if our stress is not intense enough during the event, then we are significantly less likely to upgrade our beliefs, mindsets and behaviors. A plethora of studies reveal that the individuals who are less distressed or overwhelmed by the widely-felt traumatic event (whether a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or disease) experience far less growth after the traumatic event than the individuals who experience more intense distress and overwhelm about the same event. The individuals who are less stressed by the traumatic event tend to simply “bounce back” to their baseline levels after the event, while the individuals with heightened stress have a far greater chance of “bouncing forward.” That is, they are better off psychologically after the event than they were before it. Dr. Dekel put it this way, “the most important thing is this: we must experience heightened stress if want to experience the psychological growth.”
So if you are experiencing unusually high levels of stress at this time, please know these feelings are fertile soil for growth and positive transformation in due time. Rather than desperately wishing your stress away, vilifying your stress, or judging yourself as “weak” or “flawed” for feeling so stressed, we invite you to embrace this stress as a temporary and necessary stage in the process of growing through this experience. Indeed, the intense stress you are feeling is the biggest indicator that your life after the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to be richer and more meaningful than it was before it. This, of course, is not to discount the emotional pain you or anyone else is feeling during this scary time, or to wish stress upon you. It is only to acknowledge the scientific reality that the heightened stress you are currently feeling can be the launching pad for a better life after this pandemic passes.
Part 2 of this two-part series will address three ways you can process coronavirus-related stress and turn it into psychological growth.
Jarrett Green and Rebecca Simon Green are stress resiliency, well-being, and peak performance consultants to the legal industry and to corporate America. They are a husband-and-wife team that consult to and lead workshops at many of the largest law firms and corporations in the world. Jarrett was previously a commercial litigator for 12 years, first at the international law firm of Skadden Arps and then at his own boutique litigation firm, and Rebecca was a full-time law professor. They are the co-creators of the USC Gould School of Law Mindfulness, Stress Management, and Peak Performance Program.