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  • Writer's pictureGary Moller

Post Traumatic Growth

Updated: Feb 16

When you have done a whole lot of deep tissue massage on a whole lot of people, you know that the ability to handle pain varies enormously from one person to the other. Some people are extremely intolerant of pain, while some can take just about all you can give them - and more!

There is one group of people who stand out above all others for being able to tolerate pain and these are elite distance runners. Actually, out of all the athletes I've had anything to do with I'd place my sister, Lorraine, as being Number One for pain tolerance. It is no coincidence that she has an Olympic Marathon Bronze Medal.

Lorraine winning Osaka Marathon

Image: Lorraine Moller winning 1988 Osaka International Women's Marathon

When you are at Olympic or World Championship level, the difference between first and fifth may be as little as a heartbeat or two. In the end, there is little difference physiologically between these extreme elite athletes. Who wins is the one who desires it the most and - perhaps - it is the athlete who can tolerate the most pain! More about this in a moment.

Image: Dr Paul Wood

My son-in-law, Dr Paul Wood, was recently interviewed for a podcast by ultra distance running legend, Lisa Tamati. This is one of the most informative podcasts I have ever listened to on the subject of understanding how limiting or negative self-beliefs, usually learned early in life, determine our path in life. Hence the title of the podcast, "Breaking out of your own prison".

During this interview, the issue of "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD) was discussed. Paul made the point that not everybody who suffers trauma in life becomes damaged - for many, if not most people, trauma results in beneficial growth.

This really struck a note with me because this idea of psychological trauma producing growth in a person is nicely paralleled in the science of physical conditioning or exercise physiology. The "law of the Jungle", "Survival of the Fittest", and "Use it or Lose it" are concepts that rule supreme for all living creatures, be they a simple amoeba or a complex human. We are all in a constant state of change, responding to physical and psychological stressors or threats by growing a little stronger each time so that we can better withstand that threat when we next encounter it or a variant of it. If an organism, or organ within, including the brain, is not stressed at regular intervals, it will weaken and wither. While stress is essential for growth, bear in mind as well that unrelenting stress, or a single overwhelming hit are each capable of causing harm from which there is no complete recovery and compensation (growth). Health and fitness are dependent on there being a careful balance between stress, recovery and growth. Get it right and we thrive, too little and we wither, too much in a row, or all at once, and we may suffer irreparable damage and may even end up dead.

In physical conditioning we deliberately and carefully stress the body. In some workouts the challenge may be to push as close to the precipice of breakdown as we dare before backing off, stopping, then resting up for a few days to allow repair and recovery and, finally, to compensate - to grow stronger in response to the stress. Then we repeat the whole process of stress, recovery and compensation again - and again - and again. A good coach is the one who gets this balance between stress and recovery dead right for the individual athlete. When in balance, this deliberate inducement of slight physical and mental trauma produces growth. When taken to its ultimate conclusion, the outcome is victory.

When Lorraine was preparing for any of the four Olympic marathons that she contested she was running as far as 120 miles in a week, sometimes more. I wonder just how much of this was physical conditioning as it was to build her mental toughness - her ability to hurt as much, if not more than the runners she intended to beat? Running these huge miles hurts. While inducing this extreme physical conditioning, she was also resetting her "Pain Thermostat" to a higher level.

She was building not just resilience, but also tolerance. Her ability to tolerate physical pain, dehydration, heat, cold and sheer exhaustion became extreme - to the extremes that are necessary to compete at World Championship and Olympic levels.

By the way, I do worry for some of the young people coming through today, many of whom have never experienced real physical hardship, including being truly cold, hungry, or being really dehydrated and exhausted. These things prepare one physically and mentally for the "Jungle that is Life". I have to thank my Mother and Father for the way they prepared their children for the hard knocks that life has enthusiastically fired our way with abundance.

Please have a listen to Paul's interview with Lisa and you'll learn a whole lot of lessons for life including this idea of "Post Traumatic Growth"


Dr Paul Wood has had a very colourful life. At age 18 and having just lost his mum he was on a path for disaster, a drug addict and entrenched already in a criminal underworld. One night a drug dealer tried to molest him and the young Paul...


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