The Injured Athlete: How The Mind Can Suffer During An Injury
We all know that exercise is good for our health. According to a bounty of data collected over the past few decades, regular exercise has been shown to improve our mood and decrease levels of anxiety and depression. However, as avid exercisers know, frequent workouts and activity can result in a wide range of aches, pains, and sometimes injuries.
An injury can impact the routine of even the most casual exerciser. It may be a minor set back, sidelining you from a few workouts, or a major trauma that alters the course of your athletic career. At its worst, an injury may result in early retirement. No matter what the severity, injuries serve as a frustrating reminder that we aren’t invincible, particularly when they involve a surgery.
For avid gym-goers and athletes alike, injuries are practically inevitable. Athletes are often familiar with pushing through discomfort, which can sometimes lead to pushing past safe physical limits. Those used to training at a high level can have a hard time knowing when to quit. Some injured athletes may even be reluctant to accept an injury. In any case, acknowledging the physical and emotional toll of an injury is a necessary first step towards healing and recovery.
Athletes often have perfectionist personalities, a trait that’s associated with motivation and self-improvement. Competing in sports often requires discipline both on and off the court. Maintaining accountability and working towards lofty goals is all part of the drive that keeps athletes striving for greatness. But, there can also be downsides to these qualities. When an injury robs an athlete of their physical freedom, they may experience an unhealthy amount of anxiety. Injuries can set off emotional stress when power and control is threatened. If a surgical procedure is involved, the feeling of helplessness is even more daunting since the operation itself is beyond the athlete’s control and the road to recovery is often hard to predict. The situation may lead to fear for one’s future, especially if the injury is severe enough to impact the trajectory of an athletic career. All of these thoughts can be incredibly anxiety-provoking for an injured athlete and make recovery all the more difficult. A great first step is acknowledging these fears and then creating a plan of action to address them. This might include professional counseling, mindfulness exercises, journaling, or all of the above.
For high achieving athletes familiar with success, an injury can feel like a massive failure. Sports often provide athletes with a firm identity and self-confidence. Injuries can threaten the foundation on which these identities are built. This sense of failure, coupled with the physical pain and general sadness about the situation, can result in feelings of depression. With exercise no longer available as a coping mechanism, feelings of sadness before and after an injury, particularly one involving a surgery, can increase. What’s worse, taking a hit to confidence in one area of their life may affect performance in other areas, like at work or in school. This domino effect can lead to serious depression that all began with an injury. If feelings of discouragement begin to spiral towards darker emotions, it’s important to confide in loved ones and let them in on what’s going through your head. From there, seeking out professional help is a great step towards healing the mind while healing the body.
Anger & Frustration
Injuries throw off the routine of anyone accustomed to regular physical activity. The pace of life in the absence of training slows significantly, even more so following a surgery that requires ample time off your feet and in bed or on the couch. This extra R & R may leave an injured athlete with a little too much time to dwell on the things they could have done to prevent the injury or an ongoing need to change the situation. Athletes may view their injury as a sign of weakness or something they should be able to overcome. Denial is especially common with less visible injuries, like a concussion or torn muscle. As these thoughts cycle on repeat, especially if recovery lasts for several weeks or months on end, injured athletes may become increasingly angry. When pain and recovery require an athlete to rely on others for help more than they’d like, frustration can come up. Irritability may worsen when an injury threatens independence on simple tasks, like taking a shower or going to the grocery store. This is completely natural and understandable, but also a valuable time to remind yourself that the situation is temporary.
Loneliness & Isolation
Missing regularly scheduled activities or obligations during recovery from an injury is usually unavoidable. And, feeling like they are missing out on life can be disheartening. If an injured athlete feels like they can no longer keep up, they may withdraw into isolation while they recover. It’s essential, though, to continue doing as much as possible, even if it’s less than they’re used to. Just showing up to watch or show their support (for example, at a team’s practice) may help an injured athlete avoid drawing into complete isolation. If you’re recovering from surgery at home, it’s a great time to invite loved ones over for regular visits or daily phone calls. Being around friends and teammates is a great reminder of the support systems that exist within social and athletic networks, fostering a sense of connection that combats feelings of alienation. It isn’t the same as full-blown participation, but it might be helpful for the time being.
Having an injury (and the negative feelings that come with it) may cause athletes to feel less energetic than they normally would. What’s worse, the injury itself may disrupt healthy sleep patterns. On one hand, they may find themselves restless and unable to sleep while their minds spin stories of “what if” in terms of their injury or what life will look like after they’ve recovered. On the other hand, the injury itself may result in general discomfort. Whether it’s stitches from an operation that fall in an inconvenient place, or the inability to find that comfortable sleep position, being all bandaged up isn’t exactly a day at the spa. If all this is resulting in more anxiety and discomfort, getting restful sleep might be as challenging as any other aspect of the healing process. Instead of struggling through another sleepless night, researching different ways to help improve sleep and then testing out these practices may be just the ticket to fight a night of tossing and turning.
A lack of quality sleep, among other things, can disrupt a typically hungry athlete’s appetite too. Everything from antibiotic medications typically given after surgery to elevated stress hormones can make eating more difficult than usual. Some people may handle the high-stress levels that can accompany an injury by overeating, using food to cope with emotional distress. Other people may find the thought of food unappealing, if not repulsive, during this time. An injury can drastically decrease the energy expenditure of someone in the habit of being very active. Unfortunately, because of this, some injured athletes may feel that they “don’t deserve to eat.” Fear of weight gain and other physical changes sets off a cascade disordered eating behaviors that can be very serious. Health-promoting food is an essential component of the healing process. The body needs nutrients– essential vitamins, minerals, and proper hydration- to recover from the trauma of injury or surgery. Starving the body will not only disrupt this process but may also result in a full-blown eating disorder if not treated properly. If diet starts to feel like quite a dilemma, it’s a good time to reach out to your doctor, who will likely have many great ideas and insight the best food choices to make during recovery. They may also refer you to a dietitian who can create a customized meal plan tailored to the needs of an athlete mending an injury.
Overcoming Mental & Emotional Hurdles as An Injured Athlete
Most injuries and their accompanying struggles are only temporary. Even in the rare cases when they’re not, most people frequently move past the immediate frustrations that come with both minor and significant changes to their former lifestyle. While people may hesitate to ask for help, it’s important to remember that friends and family are probably more than happy to lend a hand. It’s important to remember the things they still can do on their own and take advantage of the opportunity to let others lend a hand!
Trying to stay both positive and proactive while recovering from an injury is essential. Bad days are understandable, but moving past the tough moments will only bring us one step forward in healing both the body and mind. Just like running the last mile or sprinting a little faster towards the finish line, pushing onward through the tough experience will make an injured athlete stronger in the long run. Forging mental toughness can be as rewarding as building up physical fitness and skill.