In the last few weeks, most of us have heard, if not started using, terms that are as foreign to many people as Linear A.
"Flatten the curve."
Don't get me wrong. These are critical words, lifesaving words. These terms and far more technical ones are being universally uttered in hundreds of languages through thousands of channels during what can rightfully be considered the first worldwide panic at our current level of technological and social media saturation. We have real-time access to information and news that wasn't available even four years ago during the Ebola pandemic, let alone a decade ago during H1N1 or almost twenty years ago during SARS.
But there was one term I hadn't heard anything about. A quick Google search resulted in no hits, which shocked me. So, perhaps, I have the distinction of creating a brand new word:
The idea of this is simple and is based on a phenomenon I have been living through for the past five years : post-traumatic growth (PTG.) The essence of PTG is that, if you survive your battle with post-traumatic stress (PTS) and recover to a point where you can once again fully function, you will become a stronger, tougher, resilient, more loving version of yourself. A better spouse. A better parent. A better employee.
A better person.
Stress Is Relative
(Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash)
There are actually many similarities between the mental health impact that COVID-19 is currently having on many people and post-traumatic stress.
Hear me out.
In both cases, people are afraid. On edge. Jumpy. Unsure of what's coming next. This fear of the unknown is what's led, in part, to the mass hoarding of medical supplies, groceries, and, for reasons I still can't fathom, toilet paper.
Many people have doubt in the abilities of the authorities to handle everything going on. The constant on-demand news cycle reinforces this and sometimes thoughts go through your head more quickly than you can process them. Being barraged by negativity of this nature can lead to paranoia or depression, which often leads to alcohol or drug use to copy. This is another similarity to people with PTS, who often reach this point of depression or paranoia as the post-incident trauma they've been holding onto for weeks, months, or years finally starts to bubble to the surface.
People who are being forced into isolation, sometimes literally by themselves, are experiencing the sense of alone-ness that people living with PTS often have. In some cases, people are being separated from loved ones by hospital, nursing home, or travel quarantines, adding further stress. Professionals who work in the medical or first response fields are on the frontlines of encountering people who may have tested positive and are putting in longer hours than normal, causing worry and fear in the people they leave at home when they head to work.
Humans are meant to be social creatures and when we can't have the everyday connections we count on to keep us sane, our normal coping mechanisms can start to quickly be inadequate or even fail altogether.
If you actually get sick, you stack on the physical effects of the illness PLUS you start worrying about a laundry list of other things that weren't a concern to you before you fell ill. Who's going to take care of my kids? Will I have a job to go back to in two weeks? I was at a party last week, do I need to start calling people? Is there gas in the car?
Sound a bit overwhelming, all these things flowing through your head at once? Starting to feel like even simple tasks are a challenge? Wanting to just poke your head back under the covers in the morning?
Welcome to the mindset people with post-traumatic stress live in.
So, How Is ANY of This Leading to Growth?
My intent by pointing out these similarities is not to lower the spirits of anyone who is already living in dread of this time. It's not to sound sanctimonious about post-traumatic stress or make anyone feel guilty for never thinking about mental health before.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
This is an incredible opportunity to learn, to take in lessons from all around you, to develop aspects of your personality that may need some polishing.
Do you know in your heart that you're not that empathetic? Start thinking about what it would be like to live in a country where illness was constantly rampant, where clean water, food, and medical supplies don't get restocked in a couple days, and where people isolate themselves without the luxuries of electronics and food delivery services not to recover from illness but so they don't get shot in the street or kidnapped by human traffickers.
Then, while you cue up Netflix or Disney Plus with a hot slice of pizza or fresh salad in your hands, think about how having to wait in line for twenty minutes at the grocery store wasn't so bad and start to understand why refugees try to flee their homelands.
Have you grown apart from friends and family? It's easy to do when a two second text constitutes a conversation for many people, author included. Maybe this is a good time to reconnect. If you have elderly family members who fatally contracted the virus, would they go to the grave with words that you wanted to say unheard, maybe over slights from months or years or decades ago?
Don't let that happen. Now, while you may have time to sit and think, re-prioritize. Make amends. Don't let people die with words on your lips. For me, this was one of the hardest, but most rewarding, parts of my post-traumatic growth.
(For some wonderful ideas at how to reconnect, give this article by my friend Heather Down a read: )
Are you a student of leadership, always looking for new tools to add to your toolkit? Times of crisis present you with some of the best possible opportunities to observe leadership, both good and bad. Who is stepping up to reassure the public? Who is taking the blame for errors to this point and who is deflecting it? Which world leaders are acting like human beings, empathizing with their citizens and paving the way for easier healthcare and employment benefits and talking about their own test for COVID? Which ones are using the situation as a tool to promote their own agenda?
The possibilities for growth don't even have to be this profound or complex. If you're faced with two weeks in quarantine, take advantage of your time by doing something aside from (re)streaming every season of Bojack Horseman or Game of Thrones.
Teach yourself to knit. Read books you mean to catch up on. Learn to play to guitar (finally.) Do some gaming with your kids and then show them some retro games you grew up on. Exercise together. Start that novel you keep talking about. Take an online course. Re-connect with your spouse. Bake a cake for no reason.
Do something that will leave a legacy in your life when this all passes and we all get back to living at the speed of light.
The Greatest Lesson
Finally, if nothing else, take this to heart. We are living through a historic time, a time when virtually everyone on earth (unless you live in Antarctica) is fearing and preparing for the same thing. There are few times in life when we will be able to identify with so many of our brothers and sisters across the planet and truly say that we are a citizen of Earth.
We need each other to get through this. We need to take care of each other; to stop thinking of ourselves as individuals, families, communities, even countries.
Many people won't get this, and they'll continue to hoard everyday items or run scams to exploit people's misery or think they know better than the experts and not make any changes that could help prevent them or the people around them from getting sick.
The ones who do get it, though, have a chance to turn a horrendous, unstoppable situation into the opportunity to grow, to learn, to improve, even to flourish.
Earth will make it through COVID-19. A planet that has survived multiple extinction-level events will be just fine.
We are the variables in this equation, but we have the ability to play with the numbers a bit. We can either take this chance given to us to become better people both individually and as a society at large, or we wallow in fear and anxiety and uncertainty and come out on the other side of this crisis just as angry and harried as when we went into it.
If you had told me ten years ago that discovering I had PTS and subsequently recovering from it would actually be one of the most life-affirming, transformative things to ever happen to me, I would have told you that we weren't even in the same book, let alone the same page. Yet here I sit, reflecting on the experiences and people I've had the privilege to encounter since confronting my demons and regretting nothing about telling the world my story.
When you look back on how you got through the pandemic of 2020, think of the impact to you and those around you to be able to say that you laid some demons to rest for yourself.
Let your life during this pandemic create a legacy of growth, not one of regret.
(Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash)