Caring for yourself
Post-Traumatic Growth: Build a meaningful new normal
Learn more about post-traumatic growth & creating a more meaningful life after hardship.
Stress, loss, and trauma can have profound impacts on our mental and physical health. However, focusing solely on the costs misses a big part of the story. After hardship, many people build more meaningful and connected new normals, emerging wiser, more compassionate, and more connected than before.
Among people facing serious life events, from cancer diagnoses to assault, this type of post-traumatic growth is common. Psychologists have identified several common themes.1
- Theme #1Discovering your strength
Challenges that once seemed insurmountable often look smaller after you’ve navigated loss or trauma. By digging deep to get through hard times, you develop perspective and discover untapped abilities. Newfound strength can come simply from making it through each day—whether that means getting up despite a powerful desire to stay in bed or showing up as a parent even when you’re exhausted.
- How to do it
Because strength builds slowly over time, you might not have noticed how powerful your journey has made you. To reveal the depth and breadth of your strength, you can:
- Identify all the challenges (big and small) you’ve handled in the last week. Notice the scope of the weight you’re carrying. You may still feel like you have a long way to go, but take a moment to give yourself credit for how much you’ve accomplished.
- Reflect on the adversity you’ve experienced. Compare how you felt about yourself and your future while in the heart of the crisis to how you feel now. What are you proud of? What challenges can you take in stride that might have derailed you in the past?
- Theme #2Gaining Perspective
Major life events can help us zoom out and shift our perspective, reminding us to appreciate the everyday gifts in our lives.
- How to do it
Find a way to capture the everyday gifts. You could do anything from journaling about the things you value to creating a symbolic piece of art. Then, use this creation to keep your sense of appreciation fresh. You might pause to reflect each time you look at your artwork. Or you could create a calendar reminder to review your journal on significant dates, like your birthday or the anniversary of a diagnosis or loss.
- Theme #3Forming deeper relationships
People who have navigated hardship often come out of the experience with closer, more meaningful relationships. Cancer survivors describe developing greater intimacy with family and friends as a result of their diagnosis.2 Compared to veterans who did not suffer trauma during their service, World War II soldiers who experienced traumatic events were more likely to stay friends with people they served with.3
- How to do it
Strong bonds grow out of a willingness to make yourself vulnerable by revealing your true self.4 To open the door to that possibility, when someone asks how you’re doing, instead of automatically saying, “Fine,” consider giving the true, “I’m not-so-great” answer.
You can also nurture relationships by changing the way you prioritize your time. That might look like:
- Finding more time to spend with loved ones, even if that means living with a messier kitchen or unanswered emails
- Seeing people one-on-one or in small groups so you can have intimate conversations that aren’t possible at large gatherings
- Giving yourself permission to spend less time with casual connections or with people who leave you feeling drained. That will give you more time and energy for relationships that make you feel seen and supported.
- Theme #4Finding meaning and helping others
Many people who have experienced a crisis feel called to help or protect others. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, many New Yorkers launched careers as first responders or medical professionals. Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teenage survivors became gun-law activists, working to prevent future violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people enrolled in public health training programs in record numbers.
Major life-altering events can also lead people to search for meaning in their life. Many discover that meaning in choosing a path that honors their loved one or helps others.
Joe Kasper, who lost his teenage son to epilepsy, uses the term “co-destiny” to describe the idea that doing good in a person’s name becomes part of their legacy. Co-destiny might be as big as changing careers or as simple as volunteering for a cause your loved one cared about.
- How to do it
Turning your hurt into healing for others can help give meaning to the pain you’ve experienced. So can living a life that is deeply aligned with your values. If you’re yearning for a life with more meaning but don’t know yet what that might look like, reflect on what feels most important to you.
- Start by listing the aspects of work, relationships, health, spirituality, community engagement, creative expression, and recreation you value most.
- Next, choose a few areas that feel important to you but neglected. Where do you have a mismatch between your priorities and the way you spend your time?
- For places where your life is not yet aligned with your values, brainstorm ways to devote more time to activities that feel meaningful. You may want to call on wisdom from family and friends as well.
- To get the ball rolling, pick one change and put it in motion. That might be a huge change, like looking for a new, less-demanding job closer to nature. Or it might be a small change, like deciding to spend 15 minutes of your lunch break walking in a nearby park.
- Theme #5Charting a new course
Trauma and loss can derail the life you’d planned to lead and may even close the door on some dreams. But even while grieving that loss, you can imagine other possible paths.
Living an Option B may even make it easier to imagine radically changing the course of your life. A new direction that would have seemed too risky or intimidating before might seem more manageable or worthwhile.
- How to do it
Many people have a big-picture goal, like supporting cancer research or helping survivors of sexual assault, but don’t yet know how to put that vision into action.
Fortunately, whatever your interests and skills, you’ve got options. Supporting cancer research could mean anything from becoming a scientist to supporting a fundraising campaign. You can explore possibilities by:
- Reading a book that opens your mind to new possibilities
- Volunteering with a nonprofit
- Joining an online community or professional group centered on your interest
- Taking a class
Building a more meaningful, connected new normal is rarely fast or orderly. You may develop a powerful sense of purpose while still struggling to get a decent night’s sleep. You may create deep social connections while still bursting into tears at unpredictable moments. Hard times can leave lasting scars, but they can also provide you with the wisdom, clarity, and strength to live a more meaningful, purposeful, and connected life.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 1 of 10
Slow down and feel your feelings: Lean into the Suck
- None of us want to be sad, angry, or scared. But research shows that letting yourself fully experience your emotions can help you start to heal.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 2 of 10
Focus On The Basics: Breathe, Eat, Sleep, Move
- During life’s hardest moments, it’s critical to focus on the self-care basics: sleeping, eating, breathing, and moving. Learn more today.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 3 of 10
It’s Not Your Fault & It Won’t Always Feel Like This
- During difficult times, it’s easy to fall into mental traps, such as the “3 P’s.” Remember that it’s not your fault, & this feeling won’t last forever. Learn more.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 4 of 10
How To Be Practice Self-Compassion
- Self-compassion can help you get through hard times with less pain. Learn how to practice self-compassion & be kind to yourself.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 5 of 10
How To Ask For Help: Kick the Elephant out of the Room
- Don’t ignore the elephant in the room — kick it out. Learn how to open up, have difficult conversations & ask for the help you need.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 6 of 10
Avoid Avoidance & Accept Negative Emotions
- The battle to push bad feelings away will make your life smaller over time. Learn how to accept & embrace negative emotions during life’s hardest moments.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 7 of 10
How To Practice Gratitude & Spread it to Others
- During hard times, practicing gratitude may not feel natural or intuitive, but it can make a difference. Learn more.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 8 of 10
How To Build Your Support System
- During hard times, everyone needs extra support. Learn how to build your support system of friends, family, & other loved ones.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 9 of 10
Struggle, Grief & Joy Can Co-Exist
- Positive & negative emotions don’t cancel each other out, & you don’t have to be done with pain to make space for joy. Learn how grief & joy can co-exist.
Supporting others: Lesson 1 of 4
Mobilize their Support Team: Find Support For Others
- In life’s hardest moments, people often need more support than any one person can give. Learn how to find & mobilize support for a loved one facing adversity.
Supporting others: Lesson 2 of 4
Show up and Support in Specific, Concrete Ways
- When someone is going through a hard time, even the smallest acts of support can be significant. Learn about specific, concrete ways you can support others.
Supporting others: Lesson 3 of 4
Help people cope: Be There for the Long Haul
- Grief and hardship can long outlast the initial waves of support. Show your loved ones that you’re there to provide long-term support.
Supporting others: Lesson 4 of 4
How to Talk about Stress, Trauma, & Loss
- Instead of avoiding hard topics, become part of a culture that avoids avoidance. Learn how to discuss stress, trauma, loss, & other hard topics with loved ones.
Todd B. Kashdan and Jennifer Q. Kane, “Post-Traumatic Distress and the Presence of Post-Traumatic Growth and Meaning in Life: Experiential Avoidance as a Moderator,” Personality and Individual Differences 50, no. 1 (January 2011): 84–89; Xiaoli Wu, Atipatsa C. Kaminga, Wenjie Dai, et al., “The Prevalence of Moderate-to-High Posttraumatic Growth: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Affective Disorders 243 (2019): 408–15.
Sophie Lelorain, Philippe Tessier, Agnès Florin, and Angélique Bonnaud-Antignac, “Posttraumatic Growth in Long Term Breast Cancer Survivors: Relation to Coping, Social Support and Cognitive Processing,” Journal of Health Psychology 17, no. 5 (2012): 627–39.
Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Elizabeth C. Clipp, “Wartime Losses and Social Bonding: Influences Across 40 Years in Men’s Lives,” Psychiatry 51, no. 2 (May 1988): 177–98.
Kristin Elinkowski and Madison Romney, “Making Time for Friends: A Scientific How-To Guide for Maintaining and Strengthening Friendship in Adulthood,” Master’s thesis, University of Pennsylvania (2020).