It seems that no matter what we do in the gym to prevent them, injuries always find a way into our lives. If you play sports, they will inevitably happen at some point, for the rest of us, a moment of distraction in our day to day lives can result in a small yet annoying injury. Regardless of how they happen, injuries often feel unfair, unlucky and can alter our mental state for the worst if we let them.
Having grown up playing rugby and snowboarding coupled with the young-cocky-nothing-can-hurt-me mentality, I've collected my faire share of injuries over the years. And now that I'm in the less-cocky-I-dont-want-to-get-hurt-aymore mentality, the rate of injuries have subsided significantly but they still happen from time to time. In the following paragraphs I'll explain the way that I deal with them to stay positive and limit my performance drop during them. Hopefully it can be useful to you as well.
Part 1: Understanding how we react to injuries
There are 5 distinct phases to our mental response when we get injured:
Once you understand these traits it's going to be easier to navigate through them. Knowing about these isn't a magic bullet, I've known about these for a long time and even though I know I'll eventually reach acceptance, I tend to stay in denial and depression for a long time regardless. You can't will yourself to acceptance. Well maybe some of you can, but I can't.
My personal favourite stage, I'm always amazed at what goes through my head seconds after an injury: "No my ankle did not just twist the wrong way", "No I didn't just fall on my head after doing something stupid" or even "It doesn't hurt that much" while being rolled over in pain ready to puke.
Since injuries appear (at first) to be an unlucky event, our brain has a tough time accepting them and immediately gets to work on excuses rationalizing why they shouldn't of happened.
This stage usually last a few days at least but can last a lot longer if we cling on the belief that our injuries "are probably no that bad". The best way to get out of this stage is to go see a qualified doctor or health professional to get their unbiased opinion. It doesn't matter what our brain thinks, when a doctor says we have a grade 3 ankle sprain, there's not a lot we can say about it.
Anger is what we feel when our brain accepts that an unlucky or unfair event has happened to us. Why me???? I train seriously, eat well, do all the right things, so why oh WHY did I get injured??
Trying to find something or someone to blame is your brain's new favourite thing during this stage. My personal recommendation: take some time to process that emotion but get on top of it as soon as possible. Getting treatment, talking to others with similar injuries or reading online forums will move you past this. As soon as you realize that others have similar injuries, you will notice that it's not just you, it happens to others, so maybe throwing a tantrum isn't the right way to go.
I don't know who we bargain with during this stage, ourselves? Higher powers? Our doctors and physios? But the fact remains that a thought we previously had during denial comes roaring back: its not that bad!
The problem here is that we try to find ways we can keep doing what we love by doing compromises: Can't I keep working out with lighter weights? Can I just wear a brace? I'll go for a light jog and stop if it hurts, promise!
This stage can be dangerous because we may be tempted to get back to our activity too quick and risk re injuring ourselves.
When we finally realize that no, we cannot keep doing what we love for a while, our brain goes into despair. We tend to over exaggerate the seriousness of our injury and can sometime take serious and dangerous depressions. Usually the worst the injury, the worst depression. I can tell you first hand that I was a lot more depressed after my ACL surgery than after my broken wrist.
In this stage we often feel like we are worthless, a joke, that we shouldn't even bother trying to get back to our activities and other gloomy thoughts.
When you realized you are in this stage, try to find ways to spend time with your friends and loved ones. Think about it, you now have all this free time from not training. Use it. If you can't walk easily invite people over, phone your mom, or your kids.
When we are injured, people close to us want to help. Sometimes the hardest part of being injured is letting others help. I remember in my early 20s being depressed and just rotting there is my thoughts of self pity and avoiding help because of stubbornness. I wish I had the mental clarity back then to understand what was happening to me and to be more pro active during this stage.
But hey good news, once you're in this stage, you're almost there! You're only one step away from getting back on track properly.
Acceptance can often feel like deliverance. Our mood goes back up, our energy goes back up, and we finally get back on track. We do our rehab exercises daily, and more important than all, we start gaining our confidence back, we got this!!
How quick you reach acceptance will vary from person to person depending. Some of us can reach this stage rather quickly while others (like me) tend to take a little longer. There are many right ways to reach acceptance, so it's up to you to find the way that best suits you.
Part 2: What to do when you get injured
Injuries come in all shapes and form but we can have a systematic approach to handling them.
Let's take it from the start, the event of the injury. Something happens to you. This could range from something not feeling quite right, like a rolled ankle, something shifting, to something that immediately sparks a lot of pain.
1. Stop what you're doing
First thing to do is to stop what you're doing. I know very well how tempting it is to just "push through" in the hopes that it will get better as we keep on going. Unless you are a professional athlete playing in a tournament or a big race, I highly recommend against pushing through since the risk vs rewards is just not worth it.
2. Monitor symptoms
How is your body reacting to your injury? Is the pain excruciating, mild, going away? Can you move the injured area? Is it getting worse?
If you're not going to the doctor's or hospital right away, you want to figure out if your injury is serious or just a tough bump.
We all have different pain tolerances which will influence our response to these questions. I've seen people stop running because of simple bruises after a fall and other not noticing they tore their ACL. So it's going to be entirely up to you to decide how you perceive the injury. Some people will want to go see a doctor right away, some may want to wait a week or two.
Note for people with high pain threshold: Having a high pain threshold is usually helpful for those playing in contact sports or are used to pushing their bodies to their limits during training. But, if you feel like your body isn't performing 100% after an event that could lead to injuries, go get it checked! Injuries that don't heal properly are not a good thing and "pushing through" injuries because you are a tough guy/girl will do more harm than good in the long run.
If you see that pains goes away day after day, see if you can resume normal activity once you are pain free. If all goes well, continue monitoring for symptoms for the following weeks. If everything keeps feeling good, you made it!
If you notice that your symptoms keep coming back every time you try to start your activity again, go see someone for help. Even though the symptoms may not be very painful, they should not reappear when you start exercising again.
3. Do your rehab
After a serious injury, you will go through a rehab process. Yes it sucks, at first. But trust me when I say that taking your rehab seriously is part of being a diligent athlete. After being injured, your number one goal is to get back to pre injured form as quickly as possible and that means doing your rehab daily. Don't skip any steps in that process and trust your physios and doctors.
If you want to get second opinions that's fine, just don't go on a quest for that one opinion that your want to hear. If two or three rehab specialist say the same thing, trust them.
Part 3: What can you do on top of your rehab?
I know how tough/depressing/sucky rehab can be. It's hard enough to not be doing what you love, but you'll usually have to suffer through seeing your friends/teammates being able to continue doing whatever it is that you used to do with them. It's a double whammy.
Thankfully there are a few things that have helped me in the past to get over this.
Find another activity you can do pain free
This could be anything physical but mental as well. My latest injury prevents me from running, so I picked up swimming. The point is to find something that challenges you to become better at it. You want to channel your energy somewhere. This doesn't mean that you switching sports/activities forever, but that you now have a temporary challenge that takes your mind off your usual activity.
Clean up your diet
You'll expand a lot less calories while being injured, so adjust your nutrition accordingly. You'll also have more time on your hand which can be used to meal prep better. If this doesn't sound attractive to you, remember that a healthy diet helps decrease inflammation and will make you recover faster.
Extra fruits and veggies are always a good option if you don't know what to do.
Focus on sleep
This and diet should already be on your radar if you train a lot. When you are injured, your body needs sleep to heal. Focus on tidying up your sleep hygiene. Get 8 hours or more each night.
Reconnect with friends
Since you will have more time on your hands, use it to spend quality time with your friends and family. They'll appreciate having you around more (hopefully), and being in a group is can help you stay more positive during your recovery period.
Injuries will happen from time to time. Knowing our bodies and it's limits will greatly influence how we each respond to them.
Our goals when injured is to insure to good and healthy recovery so we can get back to doing what we love safely. Taking the time to diligently do your rehab and doing some of the points above will help you stay positive throughout the rehab process.
And always remember that your body can heal itself very well. The biggest mistake we can make is getting back into our activity too soon. Always take the time to heal properly.