Associate Professor (Counselling Studies)
From the beginning of the social movement in 2019 to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, people in Hong Kong have experienced two years of tumultuous changes. Many have suffered from mental stress and emotional distress. When we are in a short-term threatening situation, we can still adopt fight or flight strategies to protect ourselves and regain our inner peace. However, when the threatening situation prolongs and continues month after month, year after year, we find ourselves stuck and are unable to escape nor fight back, we inevitably feel hopeless and helpless. Worse yet, we may even plunge into frustration and withdrawn. Psychologists regard this a vicious cycle of “fear and immobility.” (Levine, 2012)
Father Henri Nouwen, a scholar in spirituality, offers encouragements to Christians in adversity, reminding us not to ask irrelevant questions at times of hardship. Nouwen believes that one of the great questions in life centers not on “What happened?” But rather, what we really need to focus on is “How will we live in and through whatever happens?” Nouwen believes that every moment that we have lived can be claimed as the way of the cross, “the cross invites us to see grace where there is pain, to see resurrection where there is death.” (Nouwen, 2007)
If one would respond to the current situation of Hong Kong with the insights of Nouwen, it would be seeing the grace and redemption of God in the midst of the current rapidly changing economic, political and social environment. In fact, by reinterpreting the negative thoughts we commonly have about adversity, Nouwen may release us from the vicious cycle of “fear and immobility”. As early as the 1980s, some psychologists in the West tried to change our negative perceptions of traumatic experiences (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2003), and began to explore the possibility of growth brought after traumatic experiences. By examining the research literature on how humans respond under high-stress situations and interviewing people who have experienced loss of spouse, physical disability, or other life crises, they identified five domains that quantify the growth experience. These domains include: 1) more appreciation of life and reorganizing of priorities; 2) relating to others more deeply and in a more meaningful way; 3) more aware of personal strength; 4) realizing new possibilities in life goals; and 5) reflection on the meaning of life and spirituality (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).
According to the analysis of the posttraumatic growth, the reason why some Hong Kong people have experienced different levels of mental and emotional distress due to the impact of the social movements and the pandemic in the past two years is that our assumptive world has been challenged. These assumptions include caring for the world, predictability, control, personal security, identity, and hope for the future. When these conjectures are seriously threatened, we experience multiple and complex emotional distress, including extreme fear, insecurity, anxiety, disappointment, pain, anger and depression. When these threats persist for an extended period of time, it sets off a vicious cycle of fear and immobility, which will be elevated to a higher-level of defense mechanism – living in withdrawn and meaningless life.
Whether a traumatic experience can be transformed into an opportunity for growth depends on one’s persistence in repeated cognitive processing of the traumatic experience, which was driven by an appropriate and ongoing emotional distress. Hence, cognitive processing and emotional distress are closely intertwined and indispensable to each other.
The purpose of cognitive processing is to develop new perspectives through multiple perspectives in the unacceptable and incomprehensible realities of the world. Over time, these new perspectives will enable a schema change of traumatic experiences in us, helping us develop a new narrative about a reality that is no longer the same as before. We see a similar story about Joseph in the Old Testament. Despite being betrayed and sold to Egypt by his brothers, Joseph not only comforted them so they would not feel sad or guilty (schema change), he ultimately re-defined his traumatic experience as God’s intended redemption plan (narrative) to save the lives of many during famine (Genesis 45:5).
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and was brutally tortured (Covey, 2004, p.77). During imprisonment with absolutely no freedom, he reflected persistently and proposed a new perspective “the last of the human freedom”, allowing him “inner freedom” (schema change) to choose how to “respond” to the external environment, even though he was physically restricted in a completely passive and controlled “external environment”. Frankl’s choice of narrating this painful experience of torture through his projection became a valuable teaching material (Narrative) to share with his students in the future. The transformation of his life deeply inspired his fellow inmates and even the guards about reflection at desperate situation. Frankl helped them find meaning in hardship and dignity in prison. Post-traumatic growth theory also emphasizes the essential role of mutual support in sorting out emotions and deep reflection. To be able to share and communicate with others who have similar experiences helps to question and reconstruct the meaning of the traumatic experiences.
The entire post-traumatic growth theory conveys a paradoxical message, that is, “there is gain in loss.” When we encountered unprecedented limitations, we may be provoked with an overwhelming desire to explore new opportunities even when there is no way out! However, when we are trapped in the vicious cycle of “fear and immobility”, are we still able to see hope? Are we still hopeful about getting back what we have lost? Indeed, it is unlikely for us to have such optimistic imagination. However, what “hope” really entails is transcending optimism. It is when one is in despair, one is able to be open enough to see possibilities, believing the possibility of change in the future (Knowles, 1986). With this slight openness, it would be possible to see the traumatic experience anew from a paradoxical perspective, believing that while there is “loss”, there is also possibility of “gain”.
1. Covey, S. R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (25th Anniversary edition). New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
2. Knowles, R.T. Human Development and Human Possibility: Erikson in The Light of Heidegger. New York: University Press of America, 1986.
3. Levine, P. A. In An Unspoken Voice: How The Body Releases Trauma & Restores Goodness. CA: North Atlantic, 2012.
4. Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. “Post-traumatic Growth: The Positive Lessons of Loss,” in Meaning Reconstruction & The Experience of Loss, ed. R. A. Neimeyer, 157-172. DC: APA, 2003.
5. Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004) TARGET ARTICLE: “Post- traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence”, Psychological Inquiry, 15:1, 1 -18, DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01
6. Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Moving Through Hard Times with Hope. Compiled and edited by Timothy Jones. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001.