Healing Our Way Out of the Pandemic: How to Accelerate Emotional Recovery and Growth in a Time of Collective Trauma

The beginning of a new beginning?

Two years ago and counting the COVID-19 pandemic all but erased life as we knew it… in a matter of days. 

While the future course of the pandemic is unclear, the familiar shapes of life are returning and some of the most wrenching experiences are hopefully behind us. What do we do now? Thoroughly enjoy our re-engagement with life—to be sure. But what about the memories of days—many, many anguished moments and days— that felt unbearable? Does the imprint on our inner emotional slate suddenly get wiped clean as the world opens up again? Should we look back at what we’ve been through, or, instead, look for the secret re-set button—try to outrun those vulnerable feelings, and make up for lost time as fast as we can?

The verdict is in as any bustling town or social media feed will tell you these days: “The pandemic is over. Just get over it”  

That worries me. A lot. 

Human beings have no secret re-set button. Our inner slates do not suddenly wipe clean. And of course, with thousands of new cases, hundreds of people dying each day, and variants workshopping as we speak, nor is the pandemic over. 

The reality is that millions of us are grieving loved ones, hundreds of thousands of children lost parents, countless people are still experiencing sequelae of COVID infections, lost jobs and businesses, students missed opportunities for educational and emotional development; millions of people are suffering from mental health challenges in one of the most destabilizing times in history. Then—and it’s hard to say it all in one breath—there’s the devastation of ongoing racial prejudice, economic inequities, the accelerating impact climate crisis, the brutal war in Ukraine and the escalated potential for world-wide conflict factoring into our efforts to restabilize ourselves and our children. 

Still, we are in a moment filled with possibility—but only if we chose to recognize it, both for its challenges and for its opportunities for growth.

Using the pandemic lull to strategically take stock and move forward stronger

For the first time in this perpetually caught-off-guard two years, we have the opportunity to make a plan. We can make good decisions and choose the best framework to heal our mental health, physical health, and well-being for us and generations to come, by looking at the science. Not just better for us now, but in the way that legacy works, our attention to healing now will benefit the well-being of generations to come. The framework that I want to propose is that of trauma—collective trauma—and the vision for the path forward is collective healing and post-traumatic growth. 

How we remember the pandemic—and more specifically how we remember ourselves and those that got us through in the pandemic— really matters. Each of us separately and collectively are the heroic protagonists of our own stories. Only we can know what we went through. While it is hard to look back, we can draw strength from having prevailed. We don’t exactly know our stories, yet—because we’ve been too busy surviving them. We need to look at what we’ve come through and incorporate our strengths, our courage, our dignity, our humanity into our legacy from this time.  But we can’t do this if we keep insisting—maybe even under a misguided guise of resilience— that we just “look away” and move on.

The framework of trauma opens a powerful path of healing and connection

Is the pandemic a collective trauma? This seems an obvious statement of fact.

But sometimes I hear the objections coming from my own head. 

Was it that bad? I mean aren’t we just lucky to have made it?  

Yes, we are lucky and yes it really was that bad. It still is in many ways.  Whatever happens in the pandemic, the psychological imprint of the last two years and the reshaping of our sense of the future ahead, will likely outlast whatever physical health impact of COVID. The uneasy emotion that breaks through now in the midst of happy milestones— the tears that come unbidden—when reuniting with family or walking into your child’s school for the first time in years— attests to the truth of our struggle. In these reunifications—we are reuniting with others on the outside, but also with the feelings that we held at bay within. We’ve missed each other! We’ve missed our lives! We’ve missed ourselves.

We may be be afraid that we’ll make things worse by referring to the pandemic as a trauma, or that this kind of looking back at our experiences will encourage emotional weakness in ourselves or our children. But exactly the opposite is true. 

Ignoring our most vulnerable and confusing experiences isn’t a winning psychological strategy on the most ordinary of days— any more than ignoring a toothache makes it go away. How could it be advisable to pretend that our experiences in the most unprecedented circumstances in recent history aren’t significant?  We may self-induce a stigma about our emotional health, but emotional wounds, like physical ones, need our attention to heal.

Paradoxically, acknowledging trauma to tell our true story helps us heal and move forward, stronger, together

The simple act of naming this pandemic time as a trauma accelerates the process of integration and healing. Our most fundamental assumptions about life, safety, relationships, the future were upended in the pandemic. We were individually and collectively destabilized and overwhelmed. That is the definition of trauma. We were in a protracted wired-in state of alarm yet somehow had to sit still and make our lives work. Do you notice how just acknowledging that, we can nod our heads in agreement and see how that stage feels more “past tense”? When time feels like a blur, reviewing moments helps to make distinctions and put memories in a workable place.

We need to heal. Not by getting stuck in our memories as a recent New York Times editorial cautioned, but in witnessing our own experiences in review, from the safer perch of having survived them, we can embody that hard-won dignity, courage, and strength that got us through. By returning to the experiences that we’ve lived through we are not limiting ourselves, or boxing ourselves in, we are in fact expanding our sense of agency in our world. As humans we seek meaning, when things make sense we feel calmer, these reviews help us see ourselves beyond the limitations that these hardships have created. The pandemic does not write our history, we do. 

We might think of this as a paradox of healing: When we are in daunting circumstances, we can’t process and survive at the same time—so survival is the only priority. But, the imprint of that vulnerability remains— like stopping a movie at the worst point in the story. We carry that vulnerability with us—until we go back to those hard moments and see that we made it through. Those experiences happened we went places we didn’t want to. But those experiences are not happening now.

According to collective trauma expert Thomas Hübl, the way to ensure that the past doesn’t interfere with the present is by re-integrating experiences that overwhelmed our capacity to analyze and understand in the moment. By revisiting hard experiences, we can be witnesses for ourselves, understand at a safe distance what we lived through, and use our resources for healing, rather than hiding or compensating for our pain. Without acknowledging what we’ve been through, those feelings don’t go away: they create breaks and disconnects within us and between us. 

Trauma may challenge us in the moment but ignoring it or dismissing it threatens us further.  

Turning away from our vulnerability not only impacts us, but it closes us off from responding sensitively and supportively to other people’s vulnerability. No surprise that we are uncomfortable with someone else’s vulnerability if we are uncomfortable with our own. It puts us at a compassion deficit. This leads to feeling less connected to each other. 

Isn’t that exactly the problem we’re trying to solve right now after two years of isolation?

What is Post-Traumatic Growth?

Using the framework of trauma points to another restorative possibility, that of post-traumatic growth (PTG), a concept developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Laurence Calhoun in the 1990s  to describe the transformation of those who lived through trauma. Different from resilience which reflects coping and bouncing back day to day—PTG reflects a qualitative shift in one’s perception of self and of life itself through revisioning our traumatic experiences. Though we are not exactly “post,” when it comes to the pandemic, we can accelerate towards growth by exploring the different domains of PTG. These include: 

  • A new sense of personal strength
  • A deepening appreciation for our relationships
  • An elevated sense of purpose in life 

We can begin to tell our pandemic stories by considering the ways we’ve changed over these last two years in each of these facets of post-traumatic growth. 

How to tell the stories that define our personal pandemic legacy  

Each of us has a personal story from the pandemic years. From our first zoom to our two hundredth and beyond—our personal narrative is not a retelling about the pandemic out there, it’s about what it looked and felt like in the overwhelming evolving circumstances in which we were thrust—feeling utterly unprepared. The moments and days and months and years that we made it through by adapting to the hardships we faced. Our stories are complex—included extremes of feelings:  we felt broken and protected, scared, and determined, alone and connected. We dug deep when we were weary, we reached out for help, we helped each other get through. 

There’s a world of difference between getting through something and understanding how you did it. The self-awareness that comes from the process of reviewing, telling, narrating is integrating. It allows us to be heroes in our bodies and minds, rather than feeling distracted, disconnected, and alienated from ourselves. How did we do it? How are we doing it now? We may not feel heroic because we struggled so much but that struggle—feeling lost, down, defeated—these universal experiences— does not preclude us from being the heroes in our lives. Resilient people have plenty of days when they feel helpless as I wrote about here https://tamarchansky.com/how-to-cultivate-resilience-together-empathy-is-the-way-to-connect-with-our-own-strength/. In fact, it is persevering in the face of challenges that is the definition of courage and bravery.

Here are some prompts and ideas that you can try—with yourself, your friends, your family, your colleagues at work—to find the words to describe your experiences in the pandemic. This process also helps strengthen our connections as holding environments for each other’s healing. You can return to these questions periodically and see how your answers change at different times. In this way we are not only getting to know our own stories, but we become the stewards of each other’s stories too. We build collective healing and growth by feeling seen and heard.  

  • Where does your pandemic story start? How would you describe yourself then and now?
  • What are the first four or five memories of yourself in the pandemic—what are the pictures you see? What are the captions or beliefs you have about yourself in those pictures? Now think of some recent pictures of yourself– have your feelings or beliefs about yourself changed?
  • If you could write a thank you note to yourself for getting you through this time, what would you say? What are you most grateful for in yourself?
  • What would you put in your time capsule from this time? What are the feelings that you have about the items that you include?
  • What did you learn, or what skills did you acquire or improve during this process? How were they helpful to your getting through this time?
  • Think about your photo stream, your Netflix show progression, your playlists—describe yourself at different stages or seasons of the past two years.
  • Who are the people that you are the most grateful from this time?
  • What are the ways you surprised yourself? What are things that others did that surprised you?

By looking back and reprocessing our experiences through the pandemic, we experience changes in how we see ourselves, and others, and have a deeper appreciation for life itself. 

Here’s a script to introduce the process: Whether casually at dinner or more intentionally reflecting as a family, you can say: We are coming to a better place with managing COVID. But sometimes when I think back on what it was like for us when it all started and we had to stay inside, I get overwhelmed. It feels scary to think back to that time— and many times after. I ask myself why—what was hardest? I think it was because it’s hard to not know how things work, it’s hard to be vulnerable—how about you? All those hard days, with all the changes, and being scared, and losing people we love. There are still things that I’m sad about and I’ll be sad about or angry about for a long time—but I also feel really grateful and proud of all of us that we made it through.  I think—wow, I really grew, I GOT THROUGH THAT. I’m not the same. When I think about how I changed and grew, I feel proud of myself—and proud of my family for how brave we were. I want to remember that too.  I like how we are now, even though I don’t like how it happened. What about you? What are the ways you feel like you changed?

What to do with the uncomfortable feelings in the process

When uncomfortable feelings come up in the process of looking back, remind yourself that whatever you are responding to already happened and is not happening now. Use your curiosity to ask yourself what you want to understand about yourself and the situation. It can help to think of “captions” or descriptions to the pictures you have in your mind. Consider whether the first caption that comes to your mind still fits, or how you want to revise it. Use compartmentalization techniques which I wrote about here https://tamarchansky.com/what-to-do-with-our-painful-holiday-memories-and-any-memories-from-last-year-why-emotional-compartmentalization-is-good-for-us-and-how-to-do-it/ to make these experiences manageable, but know that sometimes it is going to help to just let yourself grieve and cry our heart out—which I wrote about here https://tamarchansky.com/how-to-care-for-your-loving-heart-sometimes-it-helps-to-cry-your-heart-out/. 

Our feelings don’t always “match up”: There’s no wrong feeling

At any given time, and certainly now more than ever, our feelings might not match what someone else is feeling. When one of us feels elation, someone else might be feeling grief or anger or frustration.  There’s no right way to process experiences and this time is no exception. It’s important to give everyone space and not dismiss or disparage or “correct” someone else’s experience.

Conclusion: Post Traumatic Growth means using our Lotus Vision

When I think about the constant flow between growth and struggle, I’m reminded of the words of the late Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, “no mud, no lotus.” Could we imagine that all this upheaval and pain—this mud of our pandemic experiences and all that came before, and will come after—are in an ongoing flow of blooming into beauty, strength, courage, compassion and abundance of spirit? Pain and unhappiness—however deep and unwieldy– doesn’t mean our growth is stunted. It means it’s underway. 

We have a great opportunity to help each other heal. Together, summoning what I think of as our “lotus vision”—our capacity to understand that by witnessing and supporting each other’s journey through the collective “mud” of this time, we all benefit in a collective growth. We will make sure that true healing happens in our circles, in our families, and that this healing ripples out into communities across the globe, cultivating strength for a more compassionate, meaningful, and interconnected future, ready to face the inevitable challenges ahead.   

Resources for effective treatments for trauma and PTSD, are available at www.adaa.org
©2022 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

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