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How to cope with the psychological effect of an injury

Being injured is one of the inevitable risks that goes hand in hand with doing any kind of sport, and it’s not unusual for physiotherapists, doctors and other health professionals to be on hand to help if the worst happens. But while the physical impact of injury is well taken care of, the emotional consequences are less likely to be even considered, and therefore have any importance attached to them.

The psychological effects of a sports injury

Failing to consider the need for mental healing can actually delay or interfere with the physical healing of an athlete or sportsperson. Following an injury, it’s common to experience feelings such as denial, anger and sadness - sometimes to the extremes of rage and depression. Those who were doing well and training hard without any issues could be overwhelmed with a sense of injustice, while many will experience the fear of losing their ability - which in many cases, forms a sports player’s core identity. Add in the likelihood of anxiety over lost sponsorship income, destructive boredom if the injury impacts mobility, and a general sense of low self-esteem, and it becomes obvious that failing to address these issues properly can easily impact, slow or even derail recovery.

Coping strategies

It’s easy to instruct someone with an injury to ‘think positively’ or to ‘keep their chin up’, but such empty strategies are not likely to be productive - probably because they are trite and unhelpful. On the other hand, it is crucial for the injured party to deal with all aspects of their situation as quickly, and as well as, they can, to both promote recovery and reduce the risk of the injury recurring.

Let’s look at some of the most useful ways to cope with the emotional fallout of a sports injury.

Understand what happened

While this may not be an immediate priority, learning more about an injury helps the patient come to terms with it. There’s no set blueprint for how much someone wants or needs to know, but being told appropriate facts about what caused the injury, how treatment works, what the recovery period will be like, and how to prevent re-injury in the future, seriously empowers most people. In turn, these feelings of being in the know help people feel more in control of the situation, and aids their all round recovery.

Accept reality

This is especially important in cases where a serious injury has occurred, and the chances of it impacting on future plans are high. Sports people who compete in any kind of arena are going to feel bad about missing out - but if the situation is considered in the widest context possible, it is easier to reach a conclusion which will cause the least emotional distress possible. For example, an injured athlete with Olympic trials ahead may accept that to be 100% fit for those means giving up a place in another competition the month before.

Understand the need for adequate rest

Wanting to hurry the healing process up is entirely natural, especially for physically active people, and too much inactivity will quickly lead to destructive habits and frayed tempers. However, keeping someone informed about the huge importance of rest for the healing process and the best possible recovery is empowering. It also creates trust between the medical staff and the sportsperson. It’s not unusual for someone to under-report pain or other symptoms related to their injury, due to the fear of extending treatment or delaying a return to sport.

Seek social support

While medical attention and after care are crucial to help physical recovery, so positive social support systems are essential for psychological care. There are no strict guidelines to follow here, but where possible look for social contact and support from as wide a range of connections as possible, including family, friends and the community. Don’t be tempted to exclude sporting peers, even if seeing them may feel upsetting at first. Nobody else is better placed to understand the impact of injury, and it’s this connection which makes them an excellent network for long term support.

Draw up a manageable recovery plan

No sports person would expect to play from cold, with no learning curves, practice sessions and effort, so approaching recovery and rehabilitation in the same way can be immensely helpful. A good recovery plan provides structure, control, and achievable goals.

Learn how to connect mind and body

Practices such as meditation are well known for creating a sense of calmness and relaxation, and similar techniques can be used to boost self confidence in recovery. Visualisation involves imagining a situation actually happening in your mind’s eye, and it has proven beneficial to those struggling to overcome depression following a long term sports injury. Imagining muscles repairing and building strength actually does reduce pain levels and speeds up the healing process.

Similar techniques can also be invaluable in the initial period following injury, when the fear of relapses or further injuries can be suddenly heightened. With some simple coaching, it is easy to master the techniques of good breathing, meditation, focus, and self hypnosis - all of which help avoid fixated thinking and anxiety.

There’s no ‘one stop’ solution that can tackle the often overlooked problem of sports related psychological injuries, but there are plenty of techniques and ideas covered here to at least address the issue. Coping with the psychological fallout of a sports injury has not been the priority for those involved in the treatment of sports injuries, but things are changing, and as awareness grows, so too will support systems and official strategies.