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In 2000, the king and queen of rock climbing were 21-year-old Tommy Caldwell and 20-year-old Beth Rodden. Tommy had just recently completed one of the hardest rock climbs in the country. An equally impressive Beth Rodden had also been the youngest female to complete the hardest grade achieved by a woman at the time. Their youthful faces graced the covers of magazines and to the outside world, they were unstoppable.
No one could have anticipated what happened next.
In June of that year, Tommy, Beth, 22-year-old Jason Smith, and 25-year-old John Dickey embarked on what was to be an adventure of a lifetime. The setting was the 3,000-foot rock walls in remote Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan had recently emerged as a hotspot for mountain climbing. Unbeknownst to the four young climbers, it had also become a hotspot for militant terrorist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
On Tommy’s 22nd birthday, all four climbers were kidnapped by IMU. While kidnapped, another captor who was with them was murdered, and they were forced to march and hide in difficult terrain. Each day was filled with starvation and freezing temperatures. On the sixth day, Tommy seized the opportunity to kill one of his captors and they found their way to the Kyrgyz army compound and ultimately made it back to the US embassy.
Upon their return to the US, Beth unsurprisingly experienced extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — a condition many of us are familiar with. Tommy on the other hand, would describe how the kidnapping had directly led to him achieving even greater feats of climbing. Now 23 years on, he is still one of the top climbers in the world.
The big question is — why did Tommy and Beth respond so differently to their trauma? How could two people who were both known for being extremely strong emotionally, mentally, and physically have such different outcomes from the same event?
Notably, Tommy’s growth response to trauma is a pattern. In interviews years later, Tommy would frequently describe how traumatic events (such as the kidnapping, accidentally sawing off his index finger, and being told his climbing career was over, as well as getting divorced) were the fuel to greater and greater achievements each time.
One media outlet even referred to it as “Tommy’s magical journey” as though luck was always on his side. This, of course, isn’t the full picture. Getting kidnapped by militants, sawing off your finger, or having your spouse leave you for someone else are undeniably traumatic events. Tommy just somehow manages to capitalize on these incidents and makes it seems like the universe is always conspiring in his favor.
This powerful skill is known as tapping into Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) and research shows that you can tap into it, too. But first, it’s worth diving a little deeper into what PTG is.
What is Post Traumatic Growth?
In simple terms, PTG is the opposite of PTSD. PTG refers to a positive psychological change that results in a higher level of functioning or personal growth following a traumatic event.
Examples of PTG include — greater motivation and outcomes in physical performance, higher appreciation for life, a brand-new sense of purpose, improved relationships with others, increased personal growth and spirituality, and renewed hope in the possibilities of life.
The most hopeful part of PTG is that by studying people who suffered trauma such as injuries, natural disasters, interpersonal violence/loss, and medical problems — researchers have actually been able to identify factors that can predispose you to experiencing growth as opposed to dysfunction when you encounter trauma.
Excitingly, there is a growing body of research that shows that PTG is stable over time. This means that the growth you gain from the traumatic experience sticks around and stays with you for life.
So, the main question is — what can you do to create a pattern where trauma leads to growth more often than dysfunction?
How to Predispose Yourself to Post Traumatic Growth
I’ve always been one of those people that my closest friends consider extremely “lucky” because most of the unfortunate events in my life often lead to miraculous opportunities. It always made me wonder, “Is it luck? How much can I really affect my good fortune?”
As I was researching this article, I finally got the answer to my lifelong question. Spoiler alert: It is not (just) luck.
In fact, there is a large body of research identifying pre-trauma factors that can effectively predict if a person is more likely to experience PTG or PTSD. Here is a small slice of the factors that especially resonated with me:
1. (A little bit of) pain
One of the concepts in science that fascinate me the most is the phenomenon of hormesis.
If you would like to learn more about how to predispose yourself to Post Traumatic Growth and experience improvements physically, mentally and emotionally, click on the button below to read the full article I wrote about the steps you can take.
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