Part one of this series on post-pandemic growth that I posted last week focused on personal strength – how in the midst of this ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many of us are discovering our own internal personal strength. Today I want to focus on another important dimension of growth and that is meaningful relationships or relating to others. Many of us globally and almost overnight had to physically cut off from our friends, extended families and colleagues. If anyone had said to us on New Year’s Day 2020 that we would soon be spending months in lockdown with no physical contact with anyone other than members of our household, we would have looked at them like they were crazy. Yet here we are in these unprecedented times.
Although social distancing is a public health intervention that has been implemented by governments to reduce the spread of COVID-19, this has also unfortunately set an ideal platform for greater social isolation and an increase in loneliness. Research shows that people who are chronically lonely have higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and physical health issues like poor sleep, cardiovascular disease and compromised immune systems. From the onset of this pandemic I’ve been coaching clients and NHS keyworkers and one of the most common themes in sessions that I witness is loneliness, lack of human contact and its impact on mental health. As I reflect, I understand that each and every one of us has experienced some degree of emotional, mental, behavioural or physical aftereffects of this trauma and as I write this post I am very mindful that we are all in different stages of recovery. My area of expertise is recovery and growth after trauma (posttraumatic growth) and I want to introduce you to this dimension of meaningful relationships/relating to others as illustrated by pioneer researchers in this field, Profs. Tedeschi and Calhoun.
Relating to others: Despite being physically distanced many of us would also have experienced positive changes in relationships over the last 10 weeks. Collectively we would have felt a greater connection with others and found ourselves being more kind and compassionate. An overwhelming example of this is our weekly “clap for careers” – how every single Thursday the whole nation has come out to show gratitude to our keyworkers. One of the characteristics of posttraumatic growth (change following highly challenging situations) is relating to others –finding our attitudes or behaviours in relationships change in positive ways. We may now find ourselves willing to express our emotions, help others or even accept help, something perhaps we would never have done in the past. Within weeks of the lockdown, the NHS volunteer scheme had over 750,000 people sign up to volunteer in different capacities. Volunteering has increased substantially nationwide. Research shows that before the coronavirus outbreak, volunteer levels had barely shifted nationally for years. There is now hope that one of the legacies of the pandemic is a shift in attitudes and behaviours relating to others. One of my clients said to me -“Before the pandemic, I barely spoke to my neighbour, which honestly was quite rude, now all that is changed. I’ve also started smiling, nodding to people and saying good morning on my walks.”
Social support: Compassion and companionship are key ingredients for both recovery and growth after trauma. Social support is vital to get through tough times. As discussed earlier we are all in different stages psychologically as we go through this pandemic – some of us are in recovery and on our way to growth whilst others are struggling on many levels. So keeping this in mind I want to introduce the concept of an expert companion – a term developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun in 2006. An expert companion does not necessarily have to be a professional in trauma recovery but more of an expert in providing a sense of compassion and understanding in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. So what do you look for in an expert companion? A person who you can be yourself with, a person who holds the space for you as you deal with rumination, anger, sadness, grief, someone who shares the experience, listens to your experience and tries to see it from your eyes. Expert companions provide guidance when it is useful, understand that growth is a real possibility and encourage you towards it. Depending on what stage of recovery you are at now, I urge you to look for an expert companion who can play a vital role in your recovery and growth.
Finally, here’s an exercise for you to try:
Exercise – A Plan for Help (adapted from The Post-traumatic Growth Workbook, Tedeschi & Moore, 2016)
If you are struggling and hesitating to ask for help, you can try this exercise and create a plan. You can do this for as many people as you have in mind.
Who is someone I can ask for help?
Why haven’t I asked this person for help yet?
What is my plan for how I can ask this person for help? Describe specific actions you will take with them.
What outcomes am I expecting?
Take care my friends, stay safe and stay strong.
Author: Poornima Nair, Life Coach