Mental Health

Growth after trauma: why the freefall of the past year has created a bold new you (with zero resolutions involved)

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Anna Brech
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2020 has been one hell of a year – but at the end of it all, you’re still standing. Here’s why coronavirus may have changed you in positive new ways, alongside all the trauma

There’s no doubt about it; the events of 2020 has plunged us all into a state of continual freefall. A wave of lockdowns have brought with them health anxieties, job insecurities and a looming sense of uncertainty. But there are certain benefits to feeling so at sea.

Trauma, however horrible it feels at the time, can help us to grow and develop in new ways we never thought possible. And while the concept of a “new you” for a New Year has long since lost its shine (what’s so wrong with the old you?), it may well be that you’ve become a new you in the past year without even trying – through the mere fact that you’ve got through it all. 

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What’s more, acknowledging that resilience and reflecting on the things you’ve gained – as well as lost – can be a really useful coping technique as you brace yourself for a tough few months ahead. 

Here’s how the pandemic may have enlarged you in new and unexpected ways. 

New challenges, more resilience

In a new video on Instagram (above), chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson talks about the “other side of coin” thinking that comes with post-traumatic growth. 

This isn’t about denying or ignoring the difficult aspects of a life-changing event like Covid-19. Rather, it’s the ability to build your resilience by focusing on how you’ve grown as a result. 

“We have collectively spent a lot of time thinking about the losses of 2020,” Wilson says. “Whether those are the existential losses of jobs, of livelihoods, of loved ones; or the conceptual losses. So the losses of a sense of certainty or safety or freedom.”

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The reality, however, is far more nuanced. And because of that, it’s worth reflecting on the things that you have gained from this year: whether that’s new skills, new facets to your personality, or new challenges you’ve successfully taken on.

“In what ways have you grown this year?” asks Wilson. “How is your relationship with the world different? Your relationship with yourself or other people?” 

If you are able to flip perspective a little and write down the new changes about yourself or your life that you will take forward into 2021, you’ll start to see that – through all the chaos – you are becoming a bigger person.

Challenging the status quo

Our fear response means we are conditioned to play it safe in life. “Few of us are immune to the status quo bias,” explains happiness author and columnist Oliver Burkeman, in this column about making big decisions. “We prefer the way things are over the frightening unknown. So when you consult your gut about whether to seek a divorce, abandon your PhD, or move to Iceland, the answer you receive will be biased toward inertia.”

One silver lining of the pandemic this year is that it likely blitzed that sense of apathy. Suddenly, the safety nets we all operate by in life – our routines, our jobs, our friends – were snatched away without notice. In many cases, this felt scary and overwhelming, prompting a sharp rise in mental health problems.

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But it also showed us that, when the chips are down – when the things we rely on for comfort are snatched from us – we can cope. And that coping necessarily means that we develop new depths of courage, resilience and grit. Skills we’d never be familiar with had life not forced our hand. These same abilities can be used for big life decisions beyond the pandemic, too.

Really, as the novelist Matt Haig suggests above, this is not about crafting a “new you” but instead evolving who you already are. You are, and always were, capable of huge strength: the events of this year have simply unearthed that capacity and put it into sharp focus.

Recognising your journey

It’s fair to say that, no matter what 2020 has chucked at you, you’ve emerged a stronger, more capable person as a result. You’ve tapped a newfound capacity for flexibility, you’ve learnt from your mistakes, you’ve reached out to your neighbours when it counted.

And, most importantly of all, you need to recognise this growth. As journalist Poorna Bell suggests above, it’s a great idea to make a list of all your achievements this year. This doesn’t have to mean lockdown-worthy brags of learning Italian, or baking 1,000 sourdoughs. Instead, it’s about tapping that minutiae of subtle skills and moments; and saluting yourself for riding the waves of the storm. 

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As Winnie the Pooh told us, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and loved more than you’ll ever know.” 

Writing it down will acknowledge that fact, as a shield to take forward into 2021.

Images: Getty, Instagram

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.