Written by: Dr. Landon Opunui, ND on May 22nd, 2020
Molokaʻi has one of the state’s lowest measures of economic health, social stability and food security. These public health issues directly translate into islandwide health disparities and inequities. Unfortunately, the downstream consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely going to make these challenges more pronounced.
Trauma occurs when our assumptions about the world, and our place in it, are shattered. Previous assumptions become unstable, uncontrollable and unpredictable. These assumptions can include a false sense of security, such as the belief that a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific could never see the impacts of a global pandemic.
The more one believes they are endangered, the more traumatized they will become. If a layoff, furlough or reduction in income occurs and results in the loss of ability to care and provide for oneself and one’s family, trauma has likely occurred.
Most may be familiar with the mental health diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which occurs when someone has prolonged symptoms of anxiety, depression, hypervigilance or intrusive flashbacks that cause distress and impaired function following a traumatic event or events. Individuals can become “stuck” in a fear response and an overactivation of the fight-or-flee nervous system response may occur.
Conventional approaches to treating PTSD are primarily aimed at treating symptoms by blunting the effects of anxiety and mood through medication. This may relieve suffering, but does not address the cause of the trauma nor support a healthy coping response.
Regardless of the degree of trauma or stress, there is another approach. Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is the perceived positive changes that result from personal coping efforts with traumatic events. Positive changes can include better relationships, greater empathy, a deeper appreciation of life and an enhanced sense of personal resiliency.
The greatest challenges we experience in life can also be our greatest opportunities for transformation. Following this pandemic, if all we do is return to a baseline, we have missed a big opportunity for healing and growth.
In a 1980 study of prisoners of war (POWs), 61% reported beneficial changes as a result of captivity compared to 30% of control servicemen. The POWs reported having greater optimism, enhanced insight, better discernment about what is important in life and got along better with others. Interestingly, those who were held the longest and treated the harshest were more likely to report positive changes that persisted years after release.
Trauma has the ability to transform us by creating positive meaning from negative events, which is known as positive reframing. Not every traumatic event will transform us, but the potential to grow as a result of challenges lives inside each of us.
Reflection, telling new stories without denying the negatives, discovering deeper meanings, social support and honest expressive communication are all ways to nurture PTG.
What will be Molokaʻi’s opportunity to grow? Perhaps we can take this and future challenges as opportunities to improve upon aloha ʻāina, food sustainability, economic diversification, and community partnerships, giving our community members a bigger platform and personal empowerment.