It is both a popular belief and a research backed notion that wisdom is gained through experience. The more challenging the experience, the more opportunity for growth. Situations that push us to the limits of our endurance are called “ultimate limit experiences,”and they can accelerate the development of wisdom. The psychological term for inner growth that springs from stressful experiences, is “post-traumatic growth.” These two areas of research overlap, and ultimately come to the same conclusion: The opportunity for growth exists within all crisis, but not everyone who goes through a life crisis becomes wise as a result. The Post-traumatic growth of wisdom after Covid will be here for the taking. How can we seize this opportunity? Obviously, the level of trauma caused by the pandemic varies widely. Some of us have lost loved ones, lost our homes, or have lost the ability to meet our basic needs. The prevalence of depression and substance abuse has increased noticably. As of June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with a mental health or substance abuse issue. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us are living comfortably despite Covid, but are still experiencing fear, loneliness, and a loss of stability. None of us are living the same lives we were living 1 year ago. For those of us in survival mode, growing wisdom is far from our minds right now. Coping is the utmost priority, so if that is were you are at, you may rightly irritated by calls to use this time for growth, and may find this article on coping more relevant. Others of us have been fortunate to be able to use this time to reassess priorities, start a work-out program, bake bread or start meditating. While our experiences over the last year vary widely, we are all coping with something no of wants to be coping with, and to widely varying degrees it is a traumatic experience for all of us. The majority of us are going to bounce back; at some point returning to the level of happiness we experienced before Covid. This bouncing back to baseline, is the definition of resilience, and humans are by nature, incredible resilient. While shooting for a return to normal (resilience) is a fine goal in itself, consider being open to derive something positive from this time of struggle. The possibilities for personal and collective growth are opportunities for accelerated growth and wisdom.
Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)PTG does not occur as a direct result of trauma; rather, it is the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of trauma. The phenomenon was identified by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. They described five categories of growth that occur over time:
- Changes in how they relate to other people
- Recognition of new opportunities, priorities or pathways in life
- Greater appreciation for the value of one’s own life, and life in general
- Recognition of one’s own strength
- Spiritual or existential development
What does PTG look like in the research?Survivors of trauma report an increased ability to recognize and embrace new opportunities. They are able to forge stronger relationships with loved ones as well as with victims who suffered in the same way. They report being able to cultivate inner strength through the knowledge that they have overcome tremendous hardship, and they gain a deeper appreciation for life. Often their relationship to religion and spirituality changes and evolves. While this research is looking specifically at “growth,” and not wisdom per say, the 5 categories of growth that they identified correlate perfectly with what research identifies as the traits of wise people. So how can we cultivate the post-traumatic growth of wisdom after Covid?
Post-traumatic growth is a long-term game.Remember the key word is POST. It is not called traumatic growth. Although we may see a light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the midst of pandemic. The physical, emotional, and financial costs are going to be with us for a long time, but there WILL be opportunities to cultivate wisdom. Now is the time for us to get through this, and remember that human beings have an incredible capacity to overcome adversity. Post-traumatic growth is a long-term game. Just be open to the opportunities for it so you can recognize them when the time is right. If you have the space, time, bandwidth, right now to think about your own post-traumatic growth; that in itself can be a coping mechanism. It is a way to focus on positives, without ignoring the negatives. When we are in the midst of a longer term traumatic period like this one, we have time to begin accepting the chapters already written, while shifting our view of the future events in a meaningful way. We can craft our story in a way that paints a picture of a traumatic experience that leads to a future that is improved in some ways; and this picture offers hope despite the misery we may still be feeling.
Facilitating post-traumatic growth = cultivating wisdom.Post-traumatic growth often happens naturally, without psychotherapy or other formal intervention, but it can be facilitated. Psychologist Richard Tedeschi shares the elements of post-traumatic growth in his book The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient. The 5 elements that foster PTG growth are:
- Emotional regulation
- Narrative development