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July 29, 2022

Post-traumatic growth proves people often adopt healthy lifestyles despite adversity

The loss of a loved one to preventable health conditions have prompted many to change their diets and exercise more regularly

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Post Traumatic Growth Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Post-traumatic growth is the lesser known of the post-traumatic conditions, exceeded by the more notable post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike PTSD, PTG represents the positive change that can result from the adversity of a traumatic event.

Men find the motivation to live healthy in all sorts of places. While we'd like to think that the adoption of positive behaviors is the result of a balanced consideration of all the benefits, it's not always that rational.

It could be the financial incentives from your insurance company to join a gym. Maybe it's a spouse or buddy who decides to begin working out and coaxes you to join them. Or perhaps it's a look in the mirror or trouble buttoning your pants. I've heard them all.

However, sometimes the push comes from another direction, a real wake-up call that feels like a punch in the gut. An event that prompts an emotional reaction, and a real sense of fear. In a word, trauma. Something that causes you to look deep into your soul, reflect on your core values and, maybe, just maybe, triggers the start of your own healthy behavior.

Yes, despite a massive amount of books, blogs, podcasts and other channels promoting the merits of a healthy lifestyle, sometimes it's an emotional jolt that produces action. Scientists call it post-traumatic growth.

I first encountered this phenomenon during my initial research on 50-plus men who lead healthy lifestyles. Many of the healthy-behaving men I interviewed attributed their positive routines to a traumatic event – particularly their fears of experiencing such an event after having witnesses someone else's trauma.

I heard stories of dads and brothers who died much too early from heart attacks or cancer, and loved ones that neglected their health. For many of them, trauma was the factor that caused them to start exercising and watching their weight. They made the connection, took action and never looked back. Though not the preferred route by any means, the stories demonstrated the power that we have to change our behavior with a powerful jolt.

What is PTG?

The term post-traumatic growth, or PTG, is rooted in the work of Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina. They advanced the notion that individuals who experience a traumatic event can be changed by their experiences and emerge with increased resilience and other positive traits. Included within their five forms of growth are closer relationships and an increased sense of strength – two qualities at the heart of sustained healthy behavior.

PTG is the lesser known of the post-traumatic conditions, exceeded by the more notable post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike PTSD, PTG represents the positive change that can result from the adversity of a traumatic event. According to Harvard University, research indicates that the benefits of PTG include a stronger capability to prevail.

And research published in Support Care Cancer describes studies that show a strong connection between PTG and positive health behaviors like enhanced diet and physical activity, and the discontinuation of risky behaviors. Experts believe that the behavior change emerging through PTG can lead to better health over the long-term, especially if accompanied by social supports — consistent with the mind-body theme referenced by other researchers.

Not an uncommon reaction

Multiple sources suggest that upwards of 75% of people will experience trauma of some form over their lifetimes. According to the American Council on Exercise, more than 50% of them report post-traumatic growth. The Council describes the process as a transformation of "struggle to strength."

With such a prevalence of trauma in life, and the demonstrated ability to leverage such adversity into new opportunities – including a healthy lifestyle – PTG represents a strong, science-based message for all who have struggled to start and sustain a healthy lifestyle. Behavior change is possible, even in the worst of circumstances.

COVID: A case study in resiliency

Adding to the evidence that trauma can be a springboard to health and activity is our most recent experience with COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic I chronicled the reaction of many people, which for them, was a very traumatic event. Death, illness, isolation and a general disruption of life produced a level of stress many had ever experienced.

In the context of this new-found imposition, many Americans turned to diet and exercise as coping mechanisms. They became more conscious of their health. While there was certainly a reduction of this behavior as the pandemic wore into a second year, many were able to sustain their newfound behaviors.

Though the trauma inflicted by COVID created horrific events for many people, it offers a vivid and contemporary case study of post-traumatic growth that touched millions. 

The power of the human spirit

I was drawn to post-traumatic growth because, like no other, it reflects the power of the human spirit. There is nothing that we admire more than the ability to bounce back from adversity. It's that underdog mentality that somehow gives us the willpower to draw deep from within and conquer the challenges that life throws our way.

Now, my hope is that you will never experience trauma, and that you will find an alternative pathway to health and well-being through other motivations. But, the odds are that, with 75% of people experiencing trauma at some point in their lives, you may have your own encounter.

So, whether you are faced with the need to battle trauma, or not, consider what the science tells us about post-traumatic growth, and what that science means as far as your ability to overcome life's hurdles and start living healthy. Either way, the bottom line is that the human spirit is incredibly strong and resillient. When you find your motivation, anything is possible. 

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

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