Keep Your Head In the Game: Dealing With the Mind-fuck of Injury & Illness

Unless it’s a truly horrific, traumatizing event (for instance, being run over by a steam roller driven by all those girls that made fun of you in high school), the worst part of an injury/illness isn’t the physical pain. Sure, physical pain can be epic. It can nag and nag and nag. You can get to a point where you’d truly consider eating a rat poison smoothie if you thought it’d bring pain relief.

But usually, once you get past the immediate event and the first few days of acute pain, the worst part of any injury/illness is psychological.

You’re scared. You’re thinking, “Will I ever play the violin again?” You’re wondering who you are if you aren’t “healthy person” any more. You’re crying on the living room floor at 3 am because your back hurts so goddamned much and all you want to do is fucking sleep but your angry spine won’t let you waaaahh!!

With any serious injury or illness, once the immediate fear and pain subside, you’re left with larger existential questions.

Along with a good program of rehab and pain management, you need a mental game as well. Here are some tips for bouncing back.

1. Understand that the mind-fuck and emotional roller coaster are both normal.

Whatever you feel, it’s normal. Your identity, your sense of “OK-ness” and safety, your worldview, your daily routine… all will be challenged.

2. Remember: Resilience is a skill.

You can learn it and practice it. The more you practice it, the better you get.

Bounce is great starter reading while you heal.

3. Allow and accept.

Allow the pain/illness/limitation to be there. Accept its presence. You don’t have to like or love it. You can hate the hell out of it. But you can hate it and still allow it to be there. It’s a kind of “this sucks, but here we are” perspective.

When you are able to allow, you eliminate resistance, which contributes to and worsens pain, stress, and suffering. Much about a chronic/serious injury is really this attachment to “healthy functional person”. Once you get past the acute pain and initial fear, this fog of emotional and psychological distress is really what does the damage.

4. Be mindful and aware.

Be present with the pain and limitation. Again, allow it to be there. But also note and observe the experience in its fullness. View it as an interesting curiosity that requires careful observation and awareness.

What are you learning about yourself, your body, and the world in this moment?

See if you can get out of your head a little bit. Notice where you feel both pain/limitation and emotions in your body. For instance:

  • You may feel physically tense and anxious when you try to move the owchy part. You may notice how much you go rigid with fear as you perform certain movements.
  • You may feel physically lethargic and empty if you are sad about the injury/illness. You may feel a hollowness or heaviness in your chest.
  • You may notice other parts compensating for the injury.
  • You may feel your face and neck tensing up if you are angry about the injury/illness. Etc.

Again, try to get out of your head and into your body. Be a thoughtful observer of your physical state, from head to toe.

5. Soften towards yourself.

Practice compassion. A common approach is something like this.

Think about being your own best friend in this moment of pain. Imagine your body and spirit being like a frightened little child. Comfort yourself. Give yourself a little hug. Your body needs love and care right now, not criticisms like “How could you be so stupid!” or “How could you let me down like this!?” If you wouldn’t say it to a lost and scared little girl who’s just fallen down and scraped her knee, don’t say it to yourself. Ever.

Yes, compassion sounds woo-woo, but it’s based on good solid neuroscience and it works.

More on compassion — I highly recommend the book.

6. Allow yourself to grieve the loss.

Yes, they are real losses.

Loss of function; loss of health; loss of a coach… these and all the other small pains that go with injury are losses. Allow yourself to grieve and be present with this grief. It’s important to metabolize grief properly, and you can only do that by spending a bit of time with it.

Notice especially where grief manifests in your body. (Again, this sounds woo-woo, but it’s quite pragmatic somatic psychology.) It’s not “wallowing in self pity”. It’s real grieving for real losses, and must be done before you can move on.

If you’re concerned about being stuck “in the downer” for too long, make a deal with yourself — give yourself a set amount of time to feel badly, and then promise yourself you’ll move on after that. I recommend you allocate 48 hours to the initial stages of irrationality, grief, anger, etc. Those kinds of feelings will often last longer than that, but if you dedicate 48 hours specifically to allowing yourself to feel crappy and to fully exploring the depths of these emotions, the rest will go much quicker when it emerges later.

If you’re a “stiff upper lip” kind of person, guess what — part of your brain still feels sad, angry, fearful, etc. Allow yourself to be in that shitty place for at least a little while. Trust me; you will move through it and won’t stay there forever. You must first allow the negative feelings to be present. They are there for a reason. They help you heal. Then, and only then, should you move on to the next step of reframing.

7. Reframe.

Again, don’t leap to this step right away. It’s important to go through the steps above first.

Once you’re ready, think about how to reframe this experience.

  • Is it a moment of learning?
  • A moment to go deeper into learning about pain and limitation, so that in future you can be more understanding with others?
  • A time to indulge in more sedentary things that you always wanted to do, like reading through a stack of books?
  • A time to learn a new activity?
  • A time to reconsider your life’s priorities?
  • A time to mack on your cute physiotherapist? Etc.

8. Refocus.

Once you’ve gone through the above steps, and have somewhat successfully reframed the situation, consider how to refocus your energy.

Understand the difference between your attention being PLACED vs PULLED. Don’t allow the injury to PULL your attention. Deliberately and purposefully PLACE your attention.

This takes practice, of course. You’ll probably have to work on it. (See #1.)

9. Come up with a new game plan.

Athletes don’t deal in “shoulds”. They deal with what is, right now.

Football, basketball, and hockey players must constantly respond to what awaits them on the field. They can’t just keep running or skating in a straight line because that’s where they feel they should go. They are always correcting, microsecond to microsecond, for the movements of their opponents. So, think — or even better, feel — like an athlete, and stay dynamically responsive.

Come up with a new game plan as needed, and don’t be afraid to throw out the old one. Your “job” right now is to heal.

10. Do what you need to do.

Don’t fuck around with skipping your physio exercises, or sneaking out for prohibited runs, or whatever. Follow the instructions your rehab people give you, no matter how dumb or tedious you think they are.

Remember, it’s your job to get better — as much as you reasonably can. Help your body heal. If you’ve now got a life-altering disability, then you won’t obviously be back to where you were before. But you can still be a whole lot better than you’d be if you just gave up and did nothing.

Invest the time now and you’ll reap the benefits in the long run. 2 weeks off now can save you 6 months off later. A few days of aggressive icing could put you back in the game a month sooner. Etc.

Don’t try to be a hero. Nobody will be impressed unless they’re idiotic teenage MMA fans who throw around grandiose terms like “warrior” and “honour”. True courage involves thoughtful humility and being fully present with fear, rather than arrogant, ego-satisfying pigheadedness.

11. Understand that this is not forever.

A bad play, a bad game, a bad season, whatever. Each day is a new day. This is not forever. You’ll always have the chance to “reboot” later on. Good athletes are able to bounce back from setbacks. Many athletes even have a little “letting go” ritual, such as touching the bench or wiping the dirt off their hands. See if you can come up with a little “moving on” ritual that helps you symbolize starting fresh. (I like getting a haircut. All my old problems seem to fall to the floor along with the hair.)

12. Above all, understand that this is normal.

It’s a shared experience. We have all been there, or are going to be there at some point.

I watched at least three players get seriously injured during the Super Bowl. No doubt others are sitting on ice packs right now too. So think about this… you and, say, dozens of NFL players (and hundreds of other pro athletes) right now are sitting in whirlpools or on ice packs or on some physio’s table, thinking “Ah, shit.”

You’re in good company! If it’s good enough for million-dollar bodies, it’s good enough for you. No matter how much of a badass you think you are, no matter how athletically talented or enthusiastic, your body isn’t made of titanium. You’re soft and pink and mushy on the inside, and all wonders of engineering have limits. That’s reality. And it’s OK.