When you’re an athlete, sustaining an injury can be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face in your athletic career. The psychological wreckage is at times more devastating than the physical injury. From the moment you’re injured, to the moment you return to training and competition, you’ll experience a roller coaster of emotions. You’ll feel angry, frustrated, sad, confused, dejected, hopeful, excited … and sometimes you will feel all of these in one day (or in one hour!). The other emotion you will feel is grief.
When you are used to experiencing the world through an active body, getting injured means you are also grieving your athletic self. You might feel like you're not an “athlete” while you're injured. As one of my athletes so aptly put it, “How can I be a ‘runner’ when I'm injured and not running?” It feels like you’re no longer an athlete because a piece of your identity has been taken away. You're no longer able to do what you're passionate about. You’re missing your outlet. How can you be an athlete when you can't train and compete in your sport?
You are an athlete even when you're injured. In fact, it's even more important you remember that you're an athlete while you're injured. It's your athletic identity that gives you the potential to come out on the other side both mentally and physically stronger. Once you’re injured, your “sport” is now your rehabilitation and recovery and you need to shift your focus to that “performance”.
Research studies have proven that psychological stress slows down your body's ability to heal wounds (Gouin & Kiecoult-Glaser, 2011). Higher stress = longer recovery. One of your jobs while you're injured is to reduce stress is much as possible. When you’re dealing with one of the most stressful situations you could be dealing with as an athlete, this can seem like an impossible task. It's difficult; it's challenging; it's not impossible.
Here are five ways you can you can proactively reduce your stress and approach your injury recovery like an athlete:
Ask for help when you need it (and accept help when it is offered!). You will need different types of support through this process. You’ll need informational support from people on your medical team, someone to listen when you need to vent, a trusted teammate to train with when you’re making your comeback; allow people to help you and ask for the support you need.
Laughter not only reduces stress it also acts as a muscle relaxer and even imagining the anticipation of laughing reduces cortisol and adrenaline and helps muscles to relax (Berk, Tan, & Berk, 2008). Try it right now - think of something you know would make you laugh and see if you notice a shift in your emotions and body. Be proactive about creating opportunities to laugh; more laughing = less stressing.
The physiological affects of stress create muscle tension and lower your immune system, impacting your body’s ability to heal. There are tons of free apps and YouTube videos that teach breathing, progressive relaxation, and meditation techniques to help reduce stress. The added bonus is if you work on the skill of relaxation now, it will also have a positive impact on your ability to perform under pressure when you get back to your sport.
When you engage in visualization, you are using the same preparatory neural pathways you would while actually executing the skill. If you are early in your injury recovery you can visualize your injured body part healing or take a moment to see yourself performing a rehabilitation activity in your mind before you actually perform it. If you’re later in your recovery you can visualize how you want to feel and perform as you get back into competition. Mental rehearsal is the next best thing to physical rehearsal.
Adjust your goals:
Your ability to adjust your expectations and adjust your goals while injured is a huge factor in dealing with stress. The timeline for recovery will never be as fast as you want and you will have to deal with some setbacks along the way. Be sure you’re gauging your success based on your actual progress and not based on where you wish your were or think you should be. Adjusting your goals doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means you are adapting based on the feedback you are receiving. Adapting keeps you on your goal path.
Proactively working on successfully recovering from your injury by using all of the mental and physical tools available to you is as much a part of being an athlete as training and competing. When you're injured it's easy to become consumed with all of the things you can no longer do and all of the things you'll be missing out on. By proactively working on your injury recovery you help regain some control in an uncontrollable situation by shifting your focus from what you can't do to what you can do. Use your injury recovery as an opportunity to come back physically and mentally stronger.
Berk, L.S., Tan, S.A., Berk, D. (2008). Cortisol and Catecholamine stress hormone decrease is associated with the behavior of perceptual anticipation of mirthful laughter. The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 22(3), 946.11.
Gouin, J. & Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K. (2011). The Impact of Psychological Stress on Wound Healing: Methods and Mechanisms. Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America, 31(1). 81-93.