5 Ways to Staying Mentally Strong During an Injury

August 29, 2018


Health and Recovery


Jacqui Jubb

Being sidelined by an injury can leave many of us feeling flat, disoriented and frustrated, sometimes downright depressed and anxious.

When your misty morning jogs, lunchtime F-45 sessions or evening Zumba classes come to a screeching halt, it can be tough to keep your mental game on course. For those who are consistently active or participate in regular sports activities, the effects of an injury can be devastating.

So whether it’s a sports or gym session, road accident or workplace incident that’s left you struggling, here’s five tips on how to stay mentally fit and strong during the healing or recovery period after a serious injury.

1. Be aware of, and acknowledge, your emotions

According to Australian mental health support organisation, Beyond Blue, the physical harm and suffering (as well as emotional trauma) associated with a serious injury can often have an impact on mental health, as it often means you are unable to participate in everyday activities such as work, study and socialising and you may worry about your finances or the future.

Depending on the type and extent of the injury, you may go from being highly active to being relatively sedentary in short space of time and be stuck with only a few rehab exercises and a lot of time on the couch.

If you experience an assault, car accident or accidental fall, it can also increase the risk of developing an anxiety condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.

Understanding why you’re down and out is the first step to accepting the injury and finding smart coping mechanisms to deal with it.

Barbara Walker, Ph.D, a psychologist at the Center for Human Performance in America, says that the inability to exercise leads to a “major dip in endorphins” which can, in turn, mean those feelgood chemicals aren’t around to counteract the negative emotions.

Not to mention the isolation you experience when you’re forced to take time out from exercising with friends or your usual team sport, or the potential weight gain you may experience if you’re not burning off that fuel.

Understanding and accepting the new status quo  while you are coping with injury is half the battle and according to Walker, feeling down and irritable is normal. Her advice, speaking with Clementine Daily, is that if you “feel hopeless, it’s time to talk to a professional.”

Young man in wheelchair
There's no shame in talking to a professional to help you get by. Source: iStock

2. Find the silver lining

Rather than dwelling on what you’ve lost or getting a case of fitness #fomo, think about what you have gained by having some time to reflect, rest and rejuvenate. How many times have you wanted to do something but could never find the time?

What can you achieve during your downtime, healing or recovery period (or your permanently changed life if you have a serious injury)?

Embracing this rest time and embarking on a new project will give you a renewed sense of purpose and will likely act as a welcome distraction to the everyday frustrations that accompany your injury.

Nourish your soul, ward off anxiety and spark your intellectual curiosity with a new hobby or pursuit. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to speak Japanese, nail the art of crochet knitting or master the game of chess, now is the perfect time.

Or simply feel free to binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale, work your way through old episodes of Breaking Bad or listen to inspiring podcasts that help you stay motivated and happy. Keeping your mood up when your body is down is crucial to staying mentally healthy while you’re coping with injury.

People love a good story too so if you can flip your experience of hobbling on crutches or losing movement in a limb into a captivating campfire tale, you’ll be less likely to feel sad when you talk about what happened and might even be able to share some helpful tips with other people going through the same journey.

3. Journal your way to recovery

Speaking with NBN News, psychotherapist Shrein Bahrami LMFT says writing or journaling your thoughts and feelings is a great way to connect to the emotions and literally get them out.

“This can help to not feel so overwhelmed or aligned with them and be more objective to the situation and what you can do to improve it”, says Bahrami.

Find a writing app on your smart phone or do it the old-fashioned way with a nice leather journal or piece of paper and a pen. Julia Cameron, author of The Artists’ Way, recommends writing three continuous pages every morning to connect more deeply with your creativity and find clarity through the slow rhythm of writing longhand.

Business philosopher, author and entrepreneur, Jin Rohn, once said that if you’re serious about becoming a “wealthy, powerful, sophisticated, healthy, influential, cultured, and unique individual, keep a journal."

Even beyond coping with injury and working your way through your recovery period, it could be a productive lifetime habit to develop and enjoy so get writing.

Injured foot in cast
Take advantage of the few positives by embracing this rest time. Source: iStock

4. Don’t be afraid of the ‘woo woo’ stuff

You know the ‘woo woo’ things – deep breathing, meditation and connecting with your inner self. When you throw together stress, anxiety and a sedentary lifestyle together, it’s very common for us to breathe shallow, upper chest breaths, meaning our lungs absorb little oxygen and we can feel lethargic and lacking in energy.

According to Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel, deep abdominal breathing helps to control the nervous system and encourages the body to relax, bringing about a range of health benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, an improved immune system and increased feelings of calm and wellbeing.

Scientific studies have shown that controlling your breath can help to engage your parasympathetic nervous system and manage and reduce stress (and stress-related conditions). It’s no surprise that breath control is often used in practices such as yoga, tai chi and forms of meditation as well as a way of coping with injury.

So if you’re the kind of person that thinks breathing exercises, humming and meditation are for 65-year old hippies with long grey ponytails and their lululemon-wearing, almond milk latte-drinking offspring, it’s time to rethink it. Just remember that meditation has been around for thousands of years so it’s not really that new age.

In fact, many studies now show that meditation plays a huge part in being able to enjoy a meaningful and successful life. Kyoto University researchers found that meditation boosts grey matter in the brain and more grey matter mass in one part of the brain, the precuneus, means a happier person and the ability to find more meaning in life.

5. Seek help from those you love (and the experts)

Sometimes when you lose your fitness and the things that you enjoy in life, you can lose a sense of yourself. That’s why it is so important to call out for the assistance that you need from family, friends, carers and the community as you deal with your injury and new or adjusted way of living.

Make sure you consult your GP or a qualified medical practitioner to discuss your concerns about your injury, mental health and recovery and consider joining a support group with others who have experienced something traumatic so that you can share your own story and talk about how you feel with people that really get it.

Lady doing meditation pose
Deep abdominal breathing encourages the body to relax. Photo: iStock

Remember, if you have recently experienced a serious injury, there is a good chance you will recover without mental health complications. However, it is important to know and recognise the symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression, and to seek help if you think you may be experiencing any of them.

You can call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11  14 and you can find further mental health resources, phone numbers and support here.

Some stats on injuries in Australia (Beyond Blue):

From burns: Around 10,000 Australians are hospitalised every year with serious burns or scalds. Children aged under four are most vulnerable to this type of injury.

Acts of violence: Around one in 20 Australians each year is physically assaulted, many of them young people. Also, three in every 1,000 people experience traumatic sexual assault.

At work: One in 16 working Australians experiences work-related injury. This risk is higher for tradespeople, labourers and transport workers.

During sports: One in 10 serious injuries happens during sport or training. Football-related injuries are the most common.

Jacqui Jubb

Jacqui Jubb is a senior lawyer and writer for the Smith's Lawyers blog on legal interest and workers rights topics.