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

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

Men find the motivation to live healthy in all kinds of places. While we like to think that adopting positive behaviors is the result of a balanced consideration of all the benefits, it is not always with that mindset.

It may be financial incentives from your insurance company to join the gym. It may be a spouse or friend who decides to start exercising and convinces you to join them. Or maybe it’s a look in the mirror or a problem with your pants button. 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 elicits an emotional response and a real sense of fear. In a word, shocking. Something that makes you look deep into your soul, think about your core values, and maybe, just maybe, start your healthy behavior.

Yes, although there are a ton of books, blogs, podcasts, and other channels touting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, sometimes it’s an emotional jolt that produces movement. Scientists call it post-traumatic growth.

I first encountered this phenomenon during my initial research on over 50 men leading healthy lifestyles. Many of the healthy, behaving men I interviewed attributed their positive routine to a traumatic event—particularly their fear of experiencing such an event after witnessing someone else’s trauma.

I’ve heard stories of fathers and brothers who died early from heart attacks or cancer, and loved ones who neglected their health. For many of them, trauma was the factor that made them start exercising and controlling their weight. They made contact, took action and never looked back. Although not the preferred route by any means, the stories have shown the power we have to change our behavior with a powerful punch.

What is PTG?

The term post-traumatic growth, or PTG, is rooted in the work of Richard J. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina. They developed the idea that individuals who experience a traumatic event can be changed through their experiences and come up with more resilience and other positive traits. Their five forms of growth include closer relationships and an increased sense of power – two traits at the heart of ongoing healthy behavior.

PTG is the least well-known of PTSD, which has been surpassed by the most well-known PTG. Unlike PTSD, PTG represents the positive change that can result from the distress of a traumatic event. According to Harvard University, research indicates that the benefits of PTG include a stronger erectile dysfunction.

The research published in Support Care Cancer describes studies that show a strong relationship between PTG and positive health behaviors such as enhanced diet and physical activity, and stopping risky behaviors. Experts believe that behavioral change arising through PTG can lead to better health in the long term, especially if accompanied by social support – consistent with the mind-body theme that other researchers have pointed out.

Not an unusual reaction

Multiple sources suggest that over 75% of people will experience trauma in some form over their lifetime. According to the American Council on Exercise, more than 50% of them report post-traumatic growth. The council describes the process as a shift in “struggle to force”.

With life’s traumas pervasive, and the demonstrated ability to capitalize on this adversity in new opportunities – including a healthy lifestyle – PTG represents a powerful science-based message to all who have struggled to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Behavior change is possible, even in the worst circumstances.

COVID: a case study in resilience

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

In the context of this new hypothesis, many Americans have turned to diet and exercise as coping mechanisms. They are becoming more aware of their health. While there has certainly been a decline in this behavior as the pandemic enters its second year, many have managed to maintain their newly discovered behaviors.

Although the trauma of COVID caused horrific events for many people, it provides a vivid, contemporary case study of post-traumatic growth that has affected millions.

The power of the human spirit

I was drawn to post-traumatic growth because, like no other, it reflects the strength of the human spirit. There is nothing we admire more than the ability to recover from adversity. It is this vulnerable mindset that somehow gives us the willpower to draw deeply from within and conquer the challenges life throws our way.

Now, I hope you never experience trauma, and find an alternate path to health and well-being through other motives. But the odds are that with 75% of people experiencing trauma at some point in their lives, you may have a meeting of your own.

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


Louis Besic, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of Health Care at Cooper University, is the author of “Breaking the Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Inspire Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Lewis on his website.

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