Sports injuries often involve more than just damage to the body; they can also be a huge blow, mentally and emotionally.
While it isn’t easy for anybody to recover from an injury, for an athlete or active person it can be particularly devastating. Athletes and sports people will find it much more disruptive or limiting than the general population, with huge impacts on their identity or even their career; it is common for them to suffer from grief and loss following a significant injury.
A sports psychologist has the skills and principles to not just work with you to improve and enhance performance, but also to help you with recovering from sports injuries. Even just one session with a psychologist, can help you with your recovery.
Going through the stages of grief and loss in a healthy way, and coming to terms with pain, injury, uncertainty and lack of mobility, can be made easier with professional support.
Coping with Pain and Uncertainty
When you are battling a sports injury, it can seem difficult, if not impossible, to move forward with a positive attitude. After all, your body is under the stress of pain, and your mind is under the stress of the inevitable wait and setback – and what if this is the end of your sporting career?
Understanding the five stages of grief and loss, introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, can provide valuable insight into what active people go through when they are faced with when frecovering from sports injuries.
These five stages, introduced in 1969 by Kübler-Ross in her book “Death and Dying”, came from the study of terminally ill patients and their families. However the principles can be applied to myriad other situations causing grief and loss including recovering from significant injuries. Generally, general people do not always go through these stages in a linear fashion, and can move through them in any order. Individuals may relapse or skip steps, but it is an excellent model to describe “the norm” when it comes to experiencing significant loss, including the emotional roller-coaster active people experience following sports injuries.
Stages of Grief: Recovering from Sports Injuries
- Denial and isolation: Denial protects us when emotions and shock are too great for our coping resources; we resist and withdraw from anyone or anything that would make us face the facts, leading to isolation.
- Anger: Once denial wears off, it is common to become angry as we face the loss, as a way of deflecting the emotional pain from our core. It’s easier to turn our attention outward and resent the world or people for the pain we find ourselves in. It may be an irrational response, but it is very human. This anger in turn leads to guilt, making us even more angry and resentful.
- Bargaining: Once the reality of the loss has sunk in, we feel helpless and grasp at any possible – even impossible – idea of how we can salvage or reverse the loss. A lot of “should have, could have and would have” thinking occurs at this stage, and we run hypothetical situations of how it could have been different in our minds on replay.
- Depression: Towards the final stages of grief and loss, the reality and practical implications lead to deep sadness and worry about the changes and uncertainty we face. This can revolve around the lack of/limiting of control (and perceived control) in our lives due to the loss. This depression is also defined by the internal “letting go” process (a loved one, a goal, your expectations about your immediate sporting future).
- Acceptance: The final stage of grief and loss is the ultimate acceptance of the reality of the loss, and surprisingly is often associated with social withdrawal. This is because in some ways grief and loss is a personal and solitary affair. We all experience grief and loss in different ways, most markedly around the death of a loved one or our own impending death. Acceptance is not a happy shift, but it is quite different from depression in that it is a calm-making peace with the immediate reality that allows us to step away from suffering.
Responses to Injury and Rehabiliation
Wiese-Bjornstal, Smith, Shaffer, & Morrey (1998) developed the Integrated Model of Psychological Response to Injury and Rehabilitation.
This model describes three interdependent responses which individuals make following injury, that in turn determine their approach and adherence to the rehabilitation process. Targeting all three of these responses can help with maintaining motivation and self-belief in our recovery, and are mediated by both personal (personality, motivation, self-belief, perception on control, resilience, history of injury, coping skills) and situational factors (social support, resources available, life stressors, requirments of the sport/exercise). These three responses are:
- Cognitive Appraisal: What we think about the injury and its relations to our lives and goals;
- Emotional Response: How we feel about the injury, our future, how are mood and energy are affected;
- Behavioural response: What we do in response to injury and functional loss, planning-execution.
Personal Experiences of Recovering from Sports Injuries
From my experience working with sports people and playing sport myself, here are some common psychological barriers I have observed in people recovering from sports injuries, particularly those which require significant time off and rehabilitation:
- The “she’ll be right” fairytale – ignore, pretend, distract, entertain fantasy story of prognosis/recovery;
- Fear and catastrophising, quick debilitating periods of hopelessness and sadness;
- Frustration and agitation, handing over reins and becoming dependent on others;
- Ruminating about the lost time, lost training and strength, hyperfocus on injury and pain;
- Doubts in confidence about ability to bounce back and perform at the same standard.
Here are some positive steps I have seen in emotionally resilient sporting people, that have helped them in the recovery process:
- Acknowledging the sacrifices needed to get back, accepting limitations;
- Emotion regulation and expression;
- Social support and communication;
- Finding the silver lining – positive thinking;
- Checking in with negative thinking;
- Creative approach to use of “lost time”;
- Making a plan and sticking to it;
- Channeling the negative into motivation;
- Self-belief and vision of recovery;
- Perception and focus on controllables;
- Ability to adjust goals creatively.
If you are struggling with all that’s involved in recovering from sports injuries – whether recent or an old, niggling pain – some professional assistance in creating positive momentum in your healing process could be the boost you need.
Summit Performance Psychology has recently launched the Athlete Recovery Academy. This is a new structured and evidence-based psychological skills training and support service to improve injury recovery, performance and wellbeing outcomes. It also aims to prevent injury related mental health issues. Contact us to find out more, or book in to see Abra Garfield.