Between the pandemic, politics, and the everyday stress of our personal lives, it’s fair to say we all faced our fair share of uphill climbs in 2020. The good news? New research reveals that the struggle itself can lead to surprising new levels of happiness for us all in 2021. Here’s why — plus smart strategies for coping when the stress level dials up.
How Trauma Sparks Growth
While you’re drying the dishes, a plate slips through your fingers and breaks. Reaching for the Krazy Glue, you think how ironic it is that the dish will likely end up being stronger where it had been broken. If only you felt like that — stronger after this year’s challenges. Wishful thinking, you sigh. Or is it? Research shows that post-traumatic stress — which we’re all too familiar with — has a lesser known, positive flip side: post-traumatic growth (PTG). And we can all tap into its many benefits not only to tame worry, but also to unleash greater joy, creativity, and confidence.
“Post-traumatic growth helps us discover parts of ourselves we never would have, if not for the obstacles we faced,” says Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D., author of The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook (Buy on Amazon, $16.99), who also points out that this isn’t the same as well-intentioned yet often hollow clichés like, Everything happens for a reason. “It isn’t passive,” she says. “You make yourself stronger with your willingness to engage with difficult emotions.” Indeed, this unique form of resilience is the polar opposite of being Pollyanna-ish: “At its core is realistic optimism, which gives us hope — and hope is a key antidote to stress.”
In fact, PTG is not only linked with increased inner strength, it also leads to deeper relationships, openness to possibilities, enhanced appreciation for life, and stronger spirituality. Here are four easy ways you can use it to melt worry and turn hardship into true happiness .
Feeling powerless? Reflect on your unique ‘hero’s journey.’
After being laid off, you sent out what feels like a million résumés. But weeks of not hearing back has made you doubt your future, as you wonder if you have any control over your life.
When you feel like something else is “writing” your story, focus on your “hero’s journey,” urges Schwartz. “Like protagonists in the stories we love, we all have an arc of transformation sparked by challenges that changed us,” she says. “Each of us has a hero’s journey, be it overcoming a divorce or recovering from a car accident.” Think back on an obstacle you surmounted and who helped you do it. Indeed, there are three C’s at the core of PTG: challenge, connection, control. “Picture an infinity symbol linking all three,” she says. “After identifying the challenge, pinpoint who you can connect with who’s been where you are. Then focus on what you can control, like networking online to find a job. We all have a story we tell ourselves — reminding yourself that you’re the hero of that story will help you triumph.”
Running on empty? Find comfort through expression.
Between taking care of your family and navigating everyday tasks that have become ordeals, it’s hard to know up from down, let alone exactly what you’re feeling. All you know is that you’re drained.
Those who report the most growth have one thing in common: the ability to reflect on their emotions, reveals Jim Rendon, author of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth (Buy on Amazon, $17.99). “Expressive writing is an important path to growth because actively thinking about what you’re going through helps you make sense of it,” he says. In fact, journaling for 10 minutes a day significantly reduces blood pressure and boosts energy. “There’s often a performative aspect of writing when you’re doing it for an audience, but when it’s just for you, it’s easier to be honest.” Once you’ve gotten your emotions out, rip up the paper. This helps hardwire the belief that difficult feelings are fleeting — you are in control.
Wired and worried? Take in 30 seconds of pure goodness.
Your thoughts race as the day’s news headlines scroll across your mind. The kind of “vicarious trauma” you feel from the onslaught of negativity around you can be almost as stressful as experiencing hardship firsthand.
To offset stress in the air (and on the airwaves), take a moment to unplug. Watching painful real-life events unfold on TV can cause a reaction similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Studies show that people who watched the news after the Boston marathon bombing, for example, had more PTSD than spectators at the event itself,” reveals positive psychology expert James O. Pawelski, Ph.D. “That’s because people who saw the bombing on the news watched it on a loop — we’re not meant for a steady diet of stress.” The solution? Take in 30 seconds of good news, says Schwartz. “If you read an uplifting story for a few minutes, all the better, but a fraction of a second is all it takes to combat the brain’s tendency to scan for threats and instead let you see possibilities.”
Reeling from a loss? Discover your own ‘pink tutu.’
You’ve taken care of your aging aunt for years, but you’ve come to realize it’s time to move her into an assisted living facility. Though you’ll visit often, it’s still a loss that you’re mourning.
When we’re grieving, comfort often begins with leaning on a higher power. “Research shows that folks who are spiritual are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth,” reveals Rendon.
“Spirituality creates a wider context for our experiences — after all, so many religions teach how positive transformation can come from hardship.” Drawing strength from something bigger than yourself can also mean looking to your community, he says, sharing the inspiring story of Bob Carey, who started The Tutu Project, a nonprofit that raises funds for breast cancer, after his wife was diagnosed.
For the project, Carey dons a pink tutu everywhere from iconic bridges to town squares. He combines humor, creativity, and service, all central to growth. Your metaphorical tutu may be anything from finding an imaginative way to volunteer online to devising a unique fundraiser. Though you may not be the same person you were before your loss, you can discover new strengths that make life meaningful.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.