Have you ever wondered why some of the most inspiring success stories have such harrowing beginnings? It could all come down to something called Post Traumatic Growth -- a psychological phenomenon that experts say we need to start talking about.
Sydney high school student Alex Noble was 16 years old when a rugby accident left him paralysed from the neck down; barely able to move or speak.
“The diagnosis from the surgeons that night after the surgery was very bleak: ‘he's a quadriplegic, he won't walk again’,” Alex’s father Glen told The Feed.
“It was quite a blunt, cold assessment,” he said.
A once-promising athlete, Alex’s family were proud, but not surprised, to see him fully apply himself to his rehab program, defying all odds as he began to regain some use of his arms and legs.
But what they hadn’t expected was the immense personal growth that Alex underwent as he adjusted to his new reality.
Alex’s mother Kylie told The Feed that the accident changed her son “for the better”.
“He's become incredibly compassionate and empathetic and aware of people and their feelings,” she said.
“I have a feeling that might be a common thing that happens to people who have traumatic injuries like this, that are life-changing.”
The idea that someone can grow from suffering isn’t new
In the 1800s, it was Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger”.
A hundred years later, two American psychologists -- Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun -- started looking into why exactly that is.
Among others, they compared the experiences of cancer patients, shark attack survivors, Holocaust survivors and combat veterans.
They found that between 50 to 70 per cent reported feeling stronger, having better relationships with others and finding greater meaning in their life after the event.
They named the phenomenon: ‘Post Traumatic Growth’ (PTG). And it’s a theory that they’re still exploring today.
While a lot remains a mystery, the researchers found that people who are extroverted and open-minded before a traumatic event have a greater chance of growing from it in the months and years that follow.
It’s an attitude that Alex shares. He told The Feed that in ten years’ time his goal is to become an elite sportsperson.
“ I think this whole accident has opened a new path for me. It’s created opportunities, so hopefully, I can make the most of those,” he said.
So how can we steer ourselves towards a positive recovery pathway?
University of Melbourne Professor Louise Harms specialises in the study of PTG in Australia.
She told The Feed that while there’s a strong focus on post-traumatic stress disorder, the frequency of PTG is much higher.
But exactly how humans can steer themselves towards a more positive recovery pathway is an area of PTG research that’s still in its infancy.
Professor Harms said awareness of Post Traumatic Growth prior to a traumatic event could contribute to a positive recovery process.
“People are coming to understand much more the severity of stress and, in a way, I think the goal would be that in 10 years time people will be talking about Post Traumatic Growth as an expectation of recovery as well,” she said.
Social support is another element that could play a key role in recovery, according to Professor Harms.
“We know that social environment makes such a difference for people in their recoveries from traumas; the availability, or perceived availability, of good support,” she said.
Alex said his mates and family played a huge role in his recovery by driving him to stay positive.
"When I used to train, it used to be way more physically tough. But nowadays it’s more mental because you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere ever and then you just keep going and you’ve just gotta dig deep and a couple months down you actually see improvements," he said.
Australian Paralympic Gold Medalist Kelly Cartwright was 15 years old when she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her knee.
“I still remember it to this day, my instant reaction was: am I going to die? Why me? Why me out of so many people?,” Cartwright told The Feed.
“It was really hard to wrap my head around the fact that one minute I was happy, healthy running around with my friends, finishing school to being told that I had this rare cancer in my knee that I could potentially die.”
Because the survival rate is so low, Cartwright said she decided to amputate her leg and
“potentially keep my life and be cancer-free.”
Like Alex, she credits the support she received as a teenager for much of her success.
"I think it's really important to surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed, that want to see you do the best that you can,” Cartwright told The Feed.
"I wanted to hang out with friends and go to parties, and do all the normal things, and that's really what pushed me to go from crutches to getting my first leg to potentially starting to run again one day."
Cartwright went on to pursue a career in athletics, breaking the women’s 200m world record in 2009.
In the same year, she became the first above-knee amputee woman to summit Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
But she said her greatest achievement was when she won a gold and silver medal at the 2012 Olympic games in London.
“It's the pinnacle of sport and I made it there and not only made it there, I came home with two medals,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Cartwright told The Feed that losing her leg has led to great personal and professional growth.
“A lot of people ask me, am I glad that I lost my leg? And it sounds silly but I'm not glad, I'd give up my medals and my life to have two legs,” she said.
“Financially, physically, it would make things a lot easier, but it's made me who I am,” she added.
“It's definitely pushed me past boundaries that I never thought possible and I think that it's opened my eyes in a way that I never would have seen the world.“