This column has been updated.
Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”
What if pandemic trauma could inspire personal growth around the world?
The psychological toll of covid-19 is still evolving but already staggering. Calls to mental health and suicide crisis hotlines have soared, and anxiety and depression have more than tripled compared with early 2019. The pandemic is a slow, ambient tragedy that chips away at stability. Outside our homes, safety is never assured. Traditional places of refuge, including schools and houses of worship, are a threat. Economic and social systems are collapsing underneath us. And in recent days police violence has inflamed long-standing racial and social tensions across the country.
Sudden awareness of how little we control is reminiscent of how researchers describe traumas: as seismic psychological events. People tend to believe that the world is generally safe; traumas such as war and assault shatter those assumptions and make it difficult for survivors to regain a sense of normalcy.
A trauma lens offers useful perspective for understanding how the pandemic affects mental and emotional health and, surprisingly, some hope for how we all might grow through it. When an earthquake topples a building, architects are unlikely to rebuild exactly what was there as before. Elevators might have been too small, hallways too gloomy. Reconstruction offers a chance to build back better.
Trauma survivors often do something similar. They might change careers to better fit their values or seek out estranged relatives. Many report greater purpose, spirituality, empathy and appreciation of life, as well as strengthened relationships. These positive changes are known as post-traumatic growth, or PTG. Though less famous than post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), post-traumatic growth appears common. A 2019 meta-study found that more than half of the 10,000-plus trauma survivors surveyed reported at least some growth.
Crises can produce a collective version of post-traumatic growth. More than 60 years of research demonstrates that after bombings, tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes, people tend to work together, act selflessly and care more deeply for one another. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, volunteering and charitable donations shot up across the United States. Likewise, psychologists’ surveys after the 2004 bombings in Madrid found that the attacks socially magnetized Spaniards — creating a flurry of emotional conversations that led to decreased loneliness and increased solidarity. Surveys of war-torn communities across the world have found evidence of noticeably increased civic engagement and altruism.
For all its horrors, the covid-19 pandemic has unearthed wells of empathy and togetherness. People in many countries have created “mutual aid” forms to help vulnerable neighbors. Social distancing is a global act of social cooperation, one in which people are more willing to engage when it is framed as an act of kindness rather than self-preservation.
Post-traumatic growth differs from recovery. It is not a return to “normal” but the creation of a stronger new normal. And while, of course, no one wanted a pandemic, the United States could in many ways benefit from cultural shifts. In the four decades before the coronavirus outbreak, depression and isolation crept up steadily, while empathy dwindled. The 2018 General Social Survey found that only 35 percent of Americans believe most people can be trusted. About half of respondents think that people are “mostly just looking out for themselves.” Such attitudes damage mental health and relationships.
Disasters offer an opportunity to counter this cynicism through expanded interdependence and shared purpose. With our sense of comfort scrambled, people might unscramble their priorities, individually and collectively, and rebuild focused more on community.
The pandemic has exposed vast inequities. Black Americans have died at more than twice the rate of whites. The murder of George Floyd last week has resonated as a traumatic example of both the unequal treatment of black people in this country and the constant threat of violence that people of color live with. Poor workers nationwide have not had the luxury of sheltering at home. Millions of Americans are grieving, and tens of millions are unemployed. In the wreckage of covid-19, our society could make immense, badly needed improvements. If covid-19 testing is made free, why not cancer screening? What does our society owe the essential workers who risked themselves to protect others?
As happened with the Great Depression and World War II, the pandemic has sparked interest in broader economic safety nets. Two-thirds of Americans support a universal basic income for at least a year after the pandemic emergency ends, April polling found. Support has grown for Medicare-for-all and single-payer health care. Fallout from the public health and economic crises are likely to be felt for years, but facing that hardship together could be the first step toward creating something better than what existed pre-pandemic.
People are used to being used to things. The rhythms of our lives and norms of our culture are like clothes we put on in the morning and barely notice by lunchtime. We forget there could be anything else. Disasters, like traumas, inflict great instability. They break patterns. Adversity, whether personal or collective, reveals us to ourselves: as unfinished, with choices left to make. The question is whether, and how, we choose to grow.