What is post-trauma growth?

By Hope Magubane

After a period of prolonged trauma, like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are scrambling to put the pieces back together. So, where do you start? Clinical psychologist Hope Magubane takes us through it.

Staying present and navigating life in the Covid “new normal” has come with unfamiliar circumstances for many. It has seen the introverted individual being pulled deeper into isolation and the extroverted moving into unknown territory of less movement and social interaction. These two individuals, although identified differently, have found common ground in uncertainty and feelings of loneliness. This common ground is rooted in the natural human need for connection with other humans. This speaks to the phrase “no man is an island” and if isolation was our fate, we would have been born in aloneness. The isolation has further birthed an existential anxiety among many, seen as an increase in the search for the meaning of existence and life. 

As we journey through the road of existential anxiety some have been further knocked by multiple losses through death, income and employment. The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced us to an unfamiliar thief that has come to “steal, kill and destroy”. Many have found themselves living in fear of the unknown, wondering when this thief will pay them a visit as it does not discriminate.

As the pandemic continues, we find ourselves forced into acknowledging the trauma of its impact. We are constantly in shock and confusion as death continues to plough through our families. Some have not had breathing room to make sense of and accept their losses. This leaves a bitter taste of hopelessness and feeling victimised by the life circumstances we find ourselves in. Shame and guilt have also gained more room during this time. For some guilt stems from not experiencing any of the impactful losses as those around them continue to be shattered by it. Shame also takes centre stage for these individuals as they struggle to relate with those who appear to be experiencing traumatic events and finding themselves self-isolating from them. Friendships are tested based on support and availability during the “new normal” and unfair expectations. Trust is questioned and unanswered because in truth we are all dealing with things at different levels.

A shift towards post-trauma growth has become essential. We must acknowledge that for some, the traumas spoken about earlier are ongoing and must be taken into consideration in addressing post-traumatic growth. Researchers identify post-traumatic growth as the ability to be more than resilient in the face of adversities. It speaks to the individual reclaiming control of the different areas that may have been impacted by trauma. This sees the individual effectively utilising resources to help them navigate ongoing and past traumas. The approach I have established in facilitating this process focuses on the following areas; identifying the trauma impacted area, building connections, self-care and carer and care.

Moving past trauma

One of the steps towards post-trauma growth is identifying the areas impacted by the trauma and severity. Trauma impacts us on a cognitive level, this is seen in a change in one’s thought processes that sees individuals taking on a more pessimistic outlook on life. Life takes on the role of an abuser that cannot be escaped, so staying in the pain is better than trying to fight for a way out because the abuse cycle cannot be broken. This moves into an emotional level of impact when the individual experiences a range of emotions, such as hopelessness, fear, blame, shame, anger and sadness. Individuals at this level struggle to shake off these unwanted emotions, which may also give birth to increased anxiety. The emotions and pessimistic attitudes consume the individual on a spiritual level, which can be seen in anger and a shift in a high belief in God or ancestors that the individual may have held as sacred. A drop in their performance or absconding with no explanation will become evident in academics and work level. The last area that needs to be explored is the social level as the individual would have no desire to interact with others and move more into self-isolation.

If the individual has been severely impacted in these levels it is important to start to speak about the second step of post-traumatic growth, which can be identified as building connections. The rebuilding or building of connections is very important in the African context in echoing the IsiZulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which loosely translates “a person is a person because of other people”. This also refers to the interconnectedness of people and refers to the actual embodiment of the epistemological stance of Ubuntu. An isolated individual is at greater risk of the impacts of trauma because no one can see their struggles and the individual also has no one to call on for support.

This speaks to getting help professionally, spiritually and communally. When it comes to the professional connection, the individual may seek the help of a psychologist who would facilitate the process of the individual overcoming and reclaiming control of different areas that have been impacted by the trauma. The psychologist may refer to other professionals based on their observation, this may include a psychiatrist or other general practitioners. The rebuilding of spiritual connection may speak to individuals seeking the guidance of pastors or traditional healers in helping them mend the relationship that may have been disconnected. The communal connection taps into social or friends the individual may have withdrawn from. The Nigerian phrase “Jejely” which means “little by little” becomes very important in this process to ensure that the individual does not find themselves overwhelmed.  

Self-care addresses practical steps one can do on their own or together with the above-mentioned connections: 

  • Get an accountability partner/friend who can check that you are able to stick to your daily routine.
  • Develop a daily routine.
  • Sleep seven or more hours.
  • Take multivitamins.
  • Meditate, exercise or take a walk.
  • Eat three healthy meals a day.
  • Clean your house.
  • Find a new hobby.
  • Start journaling your thoughts and what you are grateful for.
  • Remember to bathe.

The final part of post-trauma work is the carer and care process, which addresses the individuals that are offering support to the impacted person. This can be those who identify as friends, partners, mother, child, siblings or other. It’s important to remain patient during this period because it may be easy to become bored and frustrated with the individual's process of growth or recovery. It’s important to be able to identify when you have taken on too much and remember that your responsibility is to care. This involves listening and respecting the individual’s needs - be careful not to take on the role of a professional. Doing this will leave you frustrated and feeling drained by the individual. It’s important to exercise self-awareness and self-care at all times.

A poem that I find fitting and comforting in putting the pieces together as part of post-trauma growth is Be Gentle with Yourself by Ijeoma Umebinyuo that goes “healing comes in waves and maybe today the wave hits the rocks and that’s ok, that’s okay, darling. You are still healing, you are still healing”.