It’s no secret that the pandemic has battered our mental health. Fear of infection, grief for lost loved ones, social isolation, and financial insecurity have created the perfect conditions for a mental health crisis, and, worldwide, 15 to 25% of people have experienced depression, anxiety, insomnia, or even PTSD over the past year.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, though, researchers have discovered a psychological benefit to these months of tension: the same people who have experienced high stress are also showing signs of significant personal growth.
A new study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that among people who reported high levels of COVID-related stress, 77% also experienced “one or more positive changes in their lives as a result of COVID-19.”
We tend to focus on the negative impacts of trauma, but suffering has the power to transform our lives for the better, too. Post-traumatic growth is the act of finding “silver linings” in a terrible experience and has been recorded in survivors of wars, natural disasters, and life-threatening illnesses.
Growth and gratitude
Participants in the study reported that they now have:
- Higher regard for health care workers
- Stronger awareness of the value of their own life
- More affection for friends and family
- Better appreciation for each day
- Different priorities about what’s important in life
- Greater feelings of self-reliance
Most of these changes are rooted in gratitude, and with good reason. When the people around us have lost jobs, loved ones, even their own lives, when we ourselves have suffered deep losses, it reminds us to appreciate what we have while we have it. Study after study has shown that feelings of gratitude like these are closely linked with overall well-being.
The last item on the list—greater feelings of self-reliance—might be more surprising, since so much of the pandemic, from viral transmission to lockdown measures, has been out of our hands as individuals. Still, the social isolation and uncertainty brought on by COVID have taught many of us that we are capable of fending for ourselves in times of adversity, a lesson that can bolster our confidence as we face future challenges.
Is this growth real or an illusion?
The study, though, raises a fundamental question: is this personal growth genuine, or is it all self-deception, an attempt to reassure ourselves that we’re weathering the storm of COVID better than we really are?
An assessment of their overall functioning indicated that 17% of the study’s participants were experiencing only the illusion of growth—they were telling themselves they were resilient when their mental health was actually deteriorating. For the other 60% of participants who reported growth, though, the positive changes they reported were very real, signs of healthy adaptation and adjustment.