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Fostering Personal Growth through Adversity: Reflections on the Pandemic

By Debbie Sorensen, PhD, coauthor of ACT Daily Journal

One thing is certain—if you live long enough, you’ll experience adversity. No human is immune from experiencing stressful events, trauma, loss, and pain. Adversity is unavoidable; it’s how we navigate life’s challenges that matters most.

This past year we’ve all learned that life can be unpredictable, and our world can change quickly. Many people have reported various forms of psychological distress during the pandemic. And although we may desperately wish we didn’t have to live through the worst pandemic in a century, and long for a return to normalcy, we can also look back at our pandemic experience through a lens of personal growth through adversity.

Highly stressful life events are usually unwanted, and are associated with increased psychological distress, yet in the longer term, they can also provide us with an opportunity for personal growth. It helps to respond to life’s stressors with flexibility, resourcefulness, and a growth mindset. Growth mindset, a concept based primarily on the work of Carol Dweck at Stanford, is the stance that challenges can provide an opportunity for growth and stretching our abilities.

Post-Traumatic Growth in the Pandemic

Richard Teschi and Lawrence Calhoun (2004) define post-traumatic growth as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.” There are five main areas of growth that can occur in response to adversity, which may occur in response to the pandemic:

  1. Increased sense of personal strength. In the pandemic, you may have been surprised at your own ability to handle big, unexpected problems. You may have discovered psychological resources you didn’t even know you had, like resourcefulness or an ability to cope with intense emotions. 
  2. Closer, more meaningful relationships. Sometimes we can build closer and more meaningful relationships during times of adversity. While some relationships may have suffered or faded during the pandemic, others may have grown even closer. You may have been surprised by unexpected support or by increased gratitude for the people in your life.
  3. Increased appreciation for life. Loss, or even the threat of potential loss, can help us see how precious life can be. The pandemic has reminded us of our own mortality, which we sometimes conveniently forget. In the grand scheme of things, our time to be alive is brief, and the perspective shift brought about by adversity can remind us of our most deeply held values and priorities.
  4. Identification of new possibilities and a new life path. As priorities change, new possibilities might open up that we had never previously considered. We may think about how we’ve been using our time and reconsider the path we’ve been on. We may open up to new possibilities for our lives and make changes we might not have considered without adversity.
  5. Spiritual/existential growth. In “normal” day-to-day life, we can easily lose touch with higher purpose. Adversity can spark a reevaluation of meaning, and a better understanding of what is truly important. A recent study of personal growth during COVID (Kim et al. 2021) found that self-transcendent wisdom and perceived meaning in life were associated with higher well-being. Whether you are religious or not, adversity can prompt you to engage in fundamental existential or spiritual questions, and this processes of engagement can be a source of growth.

Stephen Joseph (2013) uses a metaphor of a shattered vase to describe the process of growth through adversity. Instead of trying to put the broken pieces back together the same way as before, we might pick up the pieces and use them to make something new and different, like a colorful mosaic, instead.

Don’t be discouraged if you feel like you’ve suffered more than grown so far in the pandemic. Resilience and growth do not mean that you haven’t struggled emotionally during the pandemic. Growth occurs because of the psychological reaction we have to stressful events. If you didn’t care, no growth would happen. Both suffering and growth are possible simultaneously.

Fostering Personal Growth through Reflective Writing

You may wonder what you can do to foster growth. Fortunately, resilience and personal growth involve skills that you can intentionally learn and cultivate. Experiencing growth in the aftermath of adversity is a process; it’s not an all-or-nothing quality that you either have or don’t have, but rather an ongoing and dynamic process.

One way to foster growth is through reflective writing, which can help us develop a new perspective and make sense of our experience. As the pandemic continues to evolve, and we move into a new phase, this might be good time to reflect back—and do some soul-searching about what you have learned about yourself so far.

Writing Questions: Reflecting on the Pandemic Experience

  1. What did the pandemic teach me about myself that I didn’t already know?
  2. How was I flexible during the pandemic? How was I resourceful?
  3. What am I most proud of?
  4. What do I most regret?
  5. Which people were important to me during this year?
  6. Which experiences or activities did I long for during shutdown periods, and which no longer seemed as important?
  7. What losses (small and/or big) did I experience, and what did loss teach me about what’s important to me?
  8. If I could give my pre-pandemic self some advice, what would it be?
  9. What do I want to remember about the pandemic when I look back at this experience ten years from now?
  10. What wisdom did I gain from this experience?

Consider taking some time to reflect back on your experiences during the pandemic so far, and see if you can apply a growth mindset to learn from the experiences you’ve had. You can keep these lessons with you for the life challenges you will inevitably face on the road ahead.

Debbie Sorensen, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in Denver, CO; and a part-time clinical research psychologist at the Rocky Mountain VA MIRECC for Suicide Prevention. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology from the University of Colorado, Boulder; and a PhD in psychology from Harvard University. She is coauthor of the book, ACT Daily Journal, and cohost of the popular Psychologists Off the Clock podcast. You can learn more about her at www.drdebbiesorensen.com.

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