Hurt but Happy: Managing the Emotional Impact of an Injury
Kristine Sheedy, PhD
If you’re an athlete (at any level), injuries are difficult to avoid.They can happen regardless of how strong, flexible, agile, or careful you are. If you’re an athlete over the age of 40, you’re at even higher risk.Some athletes can take an injury in stride. I’m not one of them.Training and racing are integral parts of my life, and being an athlete is wrapped up in my self-identity and sense of purpose. I don’t dread getting up at 5:00am for boot camp. I look forward to it!So for me, an injury triggers a spectrum of emotions.I can put on a happy face, but injuries cause me to feel depressed and doubtful. I worry about if my body will heal, the strength and endurance I’m losing while I’m sidelined, if I’ll be able to get back to where I was, and if I’ll re-injure myself.
It’s helpful to know that I’m not alone. Many athletes have negative emotional responses to injury, including feelings of frustration, depression, isolation, anger, and irritability. For some, these responses can be significant.Studies suggest that several factors may influence how we respond to injuries, including our personalities (e.g., someone who likes to be in control may experience a lot of frustration if they feel controlled by an injury), how invested we are in our sport, our age and gender, and whether the injury is chronic or acute. Of course, the amount of pain caused by your injury is also important (who doesn’t get at least a little grumpy when they have ongoing pain, especially if it interrupts their sleep?).
How we respond emotionally to an injury matters. Obviously, our emotional state colors all aspects of our daily lives, from how we interact with our spouse and children, to our performance at work. When it comes to recovering from an injury, your outlook influences how you approach rehab and ultimately can impact your clinical outcome. Here are a few tips for staying positive following an injury. These are based on what experts suggest, as well as my personal experience.I don’t mean to imply that I am a shining example of what to do. On the contrary, I’ve given this my time and attention because it’s something I struggle with.
1. Work on creating positive thoughts, feelings, and expectations.
My trainer, Brett Radosta, recently shared a Native American proverb with our team:
“There is a battle between two wolves within each of us. One is evil. The other is good. The one that is going to win is the one you feed.”
I like to feed my optimistic, peaceful dog through visualization, a technique I learned as a child from my swim coach and have used ever since. Visualization is not just daydreaming, and it goes beyond positive thinking. It’s about imagining, in great detail and with all of your senses, the positive experiences that you want to occur (smell the chlorine, feel the starting block under your feet, hear the starter’s gun). Visualization puts me in a positive frame of mind. I’m also a firm believer in the mind-body connection and the power of positive expectations (which is supported by an abundance of research on the placebo effect). There are numerous resources to help you with visualization. If it’s something you have never practiced, I urge you to try it.
2. Get your ego in check.
A recent MRI revealed that I have rotator cuff and SLAP tears in my right shoulder. For a long time, I will be limiting my upper-body work to rehab exercises. Once my shoulder is better (it may take surgery for me to get there), I’ll have to start from square one and slowly work on rebuilding my strength. I allowed myself to have a few pity parties about this and then took an honest look at why I’m bent out of shape over it (after all, I’m not a professional athlete!). Some of the reasons are pretty superficial: I like having definition in my arms and shoulders and I love to bang out push-ups and burpees and lift heavy stuff (just writing about it makes me happy!). I had to acknowledge this and then give myself a good talking to about priorities. I’m working on swallowing my pride and embracing the fact that a healthy, functional shoulder is far more important than my ego-driven desires for personal records or “nice guns.”Our ego’s can be a huge asset to us, but they can also distort our perceptions and get in the way of our progress. Keeping your ego in check can be as simple as asking yourself if your emotional response is out of proportion with your actual injury and, if so, reflecting on the reasons why.
3. Do what you can and do it with a sense of gratitude.
In most cases, an injury doesn’t have to completely put you out of commission. There is almost always some form of physical activity that you can do (severe back or neck injuries are two exceptions that quickly come to mind). Continuing to exercise, eating nutritious food, and getting enough sleep does wonders for my mood. Doing these things with a sense of gratitude is even better.My current shoulder injury makes me incredibly grateful that I can work my lower body and core. I’m even grateful to be able to do my tedious physical therapy exercises! Keeping gratitude front-and-center in your mind is a great way to maintain perspective and fend off the blues, so be grateful for all that is right in your world!
4. Get support from your friends.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were right. You really can get by with a little help from your friends. The evidence related to the benefits of social support to a person’s overall physical and mental health (including recovering from sports injuries) is really amazing to me. A couple of weeks ago, I left my orthopedic surgeon’s office and sent an update about my shoulder to my trainer (who is a great source of support to me). His response included: “Please keep coming to boot camp and spending time with the team. We’ll modify workouts.Being with an encouraging group will help.” Very good advice. Don’t isolate yourself during rehabilitation. Reach out to your family members and friends, whether you need a good cry, a good laugh, or a good shopping spree, the support (and retail therapy) will make you feel better.
5. Be well rounded.
My parents always told me that to be successful at something, you have to give it 110%, but they also taught me never to put all my eggs in one basket. Given so much in life is temporary, it’s important to have multiple things that give you joy and fulfillment and to be open to new experiences. While an injury is preventing you from participating in your favorite sport, diving into one of your other passions (or developing new interests) can help to lift your spirits. And, if the worst-case scenario occurs and your injury forces you to permanently give up your sport, having other sports and activities to enjoy is a must.
6. Look to others for inspiration and encouragement.
I am always inspired and encouraged by stories of people who have overcome adversity. There are plenty of examples of athletes who have worked through their injuries and went on to achieve great things in their sport. If they can do that, surely I can get back to doing some push-ups and chin-ups! I’m a huge fan of obstacle course racer Amelia Boone, who came back strong after having knee surgery (check out her blog about going through rehab and recovery). I’m also in awe of legendary big-wave surfer, Laird Hamilton. He has endured a staggering number of injuries,views them as just another bump in the road, and believes that the experience of being injured can help you become a better athlete. His book, Force of Nature, has a great section on recovering from injuries. Finally, I am not sure any other athletes can move or inspire me more than the wounded veterans who compete in extreme athletic challenges as part of the Operation Enduring Warrior team. These active-duty and prior service men and women embody what it means to be unbreakable.
7. Get professional help if you need it.
Last, let me say that while I hope these tips are helpful, I am not a psychologist. Injury can trigger significant depression that requires professional help. Athletes may be hesitant to seek psychological help for coping with an injury. We tend to have a “tough it out” mentality. But if nothing is helping you to get out of a negative state of mind, get professional help.
Adversity, including injury or illness, provides us with an opportunity to learn and grow. Not only can finding healthy ways to mentally adapt to a sports injury contribute to your recovery, it also can allow you to actually benefit from the experience. You may be humbled, develop greater resilience, find another passion, gain a greater understanding of your body, or come back to your sport refreshed and even more motivated. I’m going for a run now. I’m not going to worry about my distance or speed. I’m going to run for the sheer joy of it and be grateful that I can!