A time for 'tragic optimism'?

Coralee Pringle-Nelson on post-traumatic growth.

Dr Vicktor Frankl, the 20th-century psychiatrist, coined the term ‘tragic optimism’, embodying it in his own life. During the Nazi occupation, Frankl lost his parents, wife, and brother. He survived several concentration camps, and following his release from Turkheim, Frankl continued his quest to serve others. Frankl wrote about his existential search for meaning while recalling the eyes of depraved inhumanity that caused his suffering.

Frankl’s experience and release from the prison camp resulted in a therapeutic perspective that elevated human dignity and highlighted the spiritual nature of humans. Binnebesel (2014) stated, ‘for practical and therapeutical purposes, seeking for the meaning in oneself and others through the lens of experiencing an a priori dignity makes life less traumatizing.’ While we can become consumed with the present suffering we see, hear, experience and are exposed to, hope allows us to balance the current circumstances with the possibility that we, like Frankl, can experience meaning out of tragedy. 

Further, we can even elevate our respect for, care, and dignity to the humanity we serve because of our own experiences with discomfort. As psychologists, we fundamentally appreciate human value and worth. This is part of our calling, our codes of ethics and our duty to clients, patients, and students. We have the opportunity to bestow continued dignity, value and worth as we all walk this road of uncertainty together.

Towards post-traumatic growth

As a Canadian, in a country that tends toward restrained optimism at the best of times, I have witnessed the deep-seated belief that mental health impacts of the pandemic will endure far beyond the physical impacts. What came to mind as I thought about the Covid-induced responses was what Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun termed posttraumatic growth (PTG) in the late 1980s (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2006). PTG is a modern, research-supported concept for those in the helping professions to reflect upon given the complex times we live in. I wondered how this concept could factor into our discussions about COVID? The risk of highlighting PTG is that it could appear trite or inconsiderate of others’ loss, confusion or overwhelm. The proposed benefit is that it may help infuse our narratives with hope despite the crisis we find ourselves in.  

Stress-related growth, perceived benefit, thriving, or adversarial growth (Linley, 2003), have been used to describe growth-related responses to challenging events. However, the term posttraumatic growth is unique and dynamic in that it describes a transformation or reformulation at the cognitive, narrative and schematic level of a human organism (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006; Neimeyer, 2006; Janoff-Bluman, 2006). Understandably the diagnostic emphasis of PTSD is highlighted during times of crisis. However, because of that necessary focus, growth possibilities may be overlooked and under-represented in our discourse.

I believe that posttraumatic growth may offer a unique perspective among the professional helping community, even as we anticipate future negative outcomes associated with the personal and social fallout from Covid-19. Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006) suggested that PTG occurred for people who already had moderate coping capacity before a seismic event. Mercifully, as professional helpers, we come armed with coping strategies that may serve us, our clients and communities. PTG can be fostered by enhancing natural optimism, benefiting from resilience-promoting environments and engaging in safe, social environments that facilitate coping (Lepore & Revenson, 2006). Developing and increasing approaches that emphasise and enrich these elements during distancing may help the professional community flourish despite being inundated with the stress and strain of our work.

Five ways

Calhoun and Tedeschi’s research (1996) using the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory found that growth can occur after a traumatic event in five possible ways: relating to others, new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life. In a later version, the inventory was revised with newly developed spiritual-existential items to account for less traditional religious perspectives (Tedeschi et al., 2017). The inventory is touted as the most widely used measure evaluating positive change, and may well spark a whole set of theses and dissertations after 2020. While we do not know when social distancing will end, nor the array of consequences, I trust the notion of PTG itself may inspire hope in other helpers as well.

When we find ourselves in dark circumstances, it can seem virtually inconceivable that something good will come from bad. We may have a myopic focus that keeps us fixated on the present unpleasant or traumatic circumstances. For short periods, this can be adaptive. We need to address what is in front of us – support our clients, students, family, and friends. And as we are experiencing, professional helpers frequently have elevated responsibilities during times of community stress and strain, and, this has an undeniable impact on us.

A PTG perspective can help us keep hope alive, despite not always living a posttraumatic growth reality. Needless to say, PTG should not be used as a manipulative tool for ‘pretending positivity’ or instilling guilt when feelings of pain, loss, and overwhelm surface. However, ‘tragic optimism’ may well resonate with many (Smith, 2020). As we do with clients, we need to honor our feelings of uncertainty, while encouraging a mindset of hopefulness and looking to a future – like Frankl did – where meaning and growth can occur despite traumatic circumstances. 

- Coralee Pringle-Nelson, Registered Psychologist, Saskatchewan, Canada. [email protected]

See also the 2012 article from Stephen Joseph

Key sources

Binnebesel, J. (June, 2014). Tanatopedagogical contexts of Victor Frankl’s concept. Progress in Health Sciences 4(1). http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.desklight-8df2c9cc-3b1e-4282-a5bc-e0f18fcc129f/c/233-238_Bindebesel.pdf

Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Holmes, J. (2014). Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. British Journal of Psychiatry205(2), 102–102. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.113.133520

Lepore, S., & Revenson, T. (2006). Posttraumatic Growth:  Research and Practice (L. G. Calhoun & R. G. Tedeschi (Eds.); pp. 24–26). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Linley, A. (2004). Positive adaptation to trauma: Wisdom as both process and outcome. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16(6), 601-610.

Neimeyer, R. (2006). Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice (L. G. Calhoun & R. G. Tedeschi (Eds.); pp. 68–99). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Smith, E. E. (2020, April 7). Opinion | On Coronavirus Lockdown? Look for Meaning, Not Happiness. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/opinion/coronavirus-mental-health.html

Tedeschi, R. G., Cann, A., Taku, K., Senol-Durak, E., & Calhoun, L. G. (2017). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: A Revision Integrating Existential and Spiritual Change. Journal of Traumatic Stress30(1), 11–18. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22155

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). TARGET ARTICLE: “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence.” Psychological Inquiry15(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01

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