The Obstacle is the Way, Pt. 2
Over twenty-five thousand runners show up at the starting line each year to run from Dodger Stadium down to the Pacific Ocean for the LA Marathon. Watching from the sideline an observer will see graceful, athletic bodies with quick strides and confident looks on their faces as they push through the race. One will also see faces filled with pain, discomfort, and bodies stumbling ahead as they battle cramps and nausea. My face looked more like the latter.
I still blame my wife for getting me into this mess. A few years ago, Cecily set a goal to run a 10K every month for a year. This moment of insanity culminated in her deciding to run the LA Marathon. I also set a goal for the LA Marathon at that time: watch. On that day I cheered her and thousands of others on to the finish line. Until then, I had considered myself a non-runner and made all the corresponding excuses: runners don’t have my build, I have a lung condition (not actually true), or I don’t have enough time to train. Yet as I stood at the finish line watching runners of all sizes, ages, and facial expressions crossing that line, I realized that the only difference between any of them and me was actually in our heads. Specifically, the difference was what was lacking in my head; a desire and willingness to do something I wasn’t confident I could actually complete. At that point I didn’t have it in me to choose to do something this difficult.
Self-efficacy is defined as “an individual’s subjective perception of his or her capability to perform in a given setting or to attain desired results.” In the case of the marathon, running for 26.2 miles was beyond what I believed myself to be capable. Yet as I stood at the finish line of Cecily’s first marathon, I began to think to myself, “I could do this.” In that moment I unknowingly made a decision that would significantly impact the rest of my life.
Pursue elective stress.
I define elective stress as the voluntary participation in an event or activity that is generally outside the range of one’s self-efficacy. In common terms, elective stress is choosing to do hard things. As noted in part one of this blog series, American culture has latched on to this at a large scale through things like marathons, obstacle course races, CrossFit, and the GoRuck Challenge (read about how I failed the GoRuck Challenge). There’s no shortage of people willing to do difficult things. But why?
To understand this, allow me to introduce a concept many are familiar with by experience but not necessarily by name: posttraumatic growth. Throughout history there are many accounts of growth in the midst of trauma. One example is the Egyptian myth of the phoenix, which flies over the Arabian desert, falls to the ground, is consumed by flames, and rises again from its ashes. In Native American culture the sweat lodge provides a process of ritual cleansing of the mind, body, and spirit through an increase in blood flow, heart rate, and cardiac output. Even the story of Christ and the crucifixion reflect the idea of growth in the face of trauma as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross offers the entire world the hope of forgiveness for sins and eternal life. The concept of positive outcomes in the aftermath of trauma is not new.
Yet only in recent years have growth and trauma been studied from an academic perspective. A new field within posttraumatic stress research, called posttraumatic growth, originated in the 1980s. Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is defined as the “positive psychological changes that may emerge following exposure to traumatic circumstances.” Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Cara Blevins write that traumatic experiences are “events that challenge an individual’s previous assumptive worldviews and conceptions of predictability.” These traumatic experiences come in many forms: physical illness, bereavement, divorce, and dramatic events such as those that occur in natural disasters and war.
Since the 1980s, research on PTG has grown in the field of positive psychology, which is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions. Psychologists Dr. Richard G. Tedeschi, Dr. Crystal Park, and Dr. Lawrence Calhoun wrote a seminal book in this field in 1998 titled Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis. Though posttraumatic growth has always played a role in human development, Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun introduced it as a concept to the academic world as a term for the benefits that arise from trauma. They suggest posttraumatic growth as a descriptor because it “makes clear that persons experiencing this phenomenon have developed beyond their previous level of adaptation, psychological functioning, or life awareness, that is, they have grown.”
There are many contemporary examples of posttraumatic growth. Divorce is one example of a painful life crisis that can lead to positive life change. One study reflected that more than 40 percent of women show long-term improvements in psychological functioning ten years after their divorce. Another study indicated that separated women demonstrate more positive changes than married women, including increased independence, self-confidence, and control over their lives.
Posttraumatic growth has also been recorded in veterans. In one study conducted among aviators who were shot down, imprisoned, and tortured by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War, 61.7 percent indicated that they ultimately benefitted psychologically from their ordeal. The research suggested favorable changes in the aviators’ personalities, self-confidence, and the ability to appreciate the most important parts of life. The research concluded that “a substantial subgroup of POWs perceive their war-imprisonment experience as subjectively beneficial.” Additional research on more recent war veterans demonstrated similar findings regarding posttraumatic growth.
It is not disputed that psychosocial stressors such as those listed here can have a negative impact on an individual’s well-being. Yet these studies reflect that psychologists are only recently beginning to measure evidence of the positive outcomes of undergoing stress and trauma. Trauma is not a good thing and no healthy human being would choose to go through it. Yet it’s undeniable that in the midst of these dark moments, growth is possible.
This brings me back to my first marathon. Running twenty-six point two miles was not a traumatic experience and calling it one would be offensive to those who have experienced true trauma. But it was difficult. It was challenging. My form was not graceful and I did not receive any sponsorship offers based on my stunning finish time (over five hours). But I did grow from the experience. Over the months of training, I had a more meaningful connection with God through regularly being outside and enjoying the beauty of nature. I experienced a depth of intimacy with Cecily as we gave hours of our week to preparation and shared in the difficulty of the increasingly long runs week after week. On the day of the marathon, as my calves cramped at mile sixteen and I wondered if I could possibly push the finish, I expanded the boundary of what I thought I was physically capable. I’ll never forget the moment at mile twenty-two seeing an American flag rise up on the horizon as I approached the VA in downtown Los Angeles. The sight brought a lump in my throat and tears to my eyes. Here I was, in the country I love, running next to my dream training partner, and unlocking a level of mental and physical endurance I would not have considered possible a few months prior. In short, I had grown.
This experience also unlocked a realization; I could facilitate my own growth. The choice to run a marathon resulted in deeper faith and relationships, causing me to wonder if this could be replicated. Is it possible to plan for growth? As it turns out, it is, and lots of people are doing it. In my next blog, I’ll take a look at how psychologists and the US Army are seeking to cultivate growth.
 APA Dictionary of Psychology, s.v. “Self-efficacy,” edited by Gary R. VandenBos, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2015, 954. http://pepperdine.eblib.com/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=3115092. April 04, 2017.
 Michael Tlanusta Garrett et al., “Crying for a Vision: The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony as Therapeutic Intervention,” Journal of Counseling & Development 89.3 (2011), 319.
 Richard G. Tedeschi, Crystal L. Park, and Lawrence G. Calhoun, Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis (Erlbaum: Mahwah, 1998), 4.
 Richard G. Tedeschi and Cara L. Blevins, “From Mindfulness to Meaning: Implications for the Theory of Posttraumatic Growth,” Psychological Inquiry 26 (2015), 373.
 Ibid., 373.
 Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun, 99.
 Shelly L. Gable and Jonathan Haidt. "What (and why) is positive psychology?" Review of General Psychology 9:2 (2005), 103.
 Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun, 11.
 Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun, 104.
 Richard G. Tedeschi and Richard J. McNally, “Can We Facilitate Posttraumatic Growth in Combat Veterans?” American Psychologist 66.1 (2011), 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun, 43.