I’m Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist in Denver, Colorado, specializing in human performance. As part of AfterShokz’ focus on injury, I wanted to share tips on how to mentally cope with injury.
“Being injured sucks.” I hear a version of this phrase echoed in my office regularly. Participate in sport long enough and you’re likely to deal with a niggle or injury of some sort at some point.
The physical side of injury gets frequent attention, as it should. We know how to diagnose and treat all sorts of sports injuries, from plantar fasciitis to IT band syndrome to stress fractures. But we often ignore dealing with the psychological impact of injuries. For many athletes, the mental aspect can be as difficult, if not more so, than the physical injury itself. Additionally, there are not nearly as many resources available to help handle the mental challenge.
Injuries can have a major impact on our thoughts, moods, and identities. One of the first aspects I pay attention to when an injured athlete enters my office is the description of loss coinciding with the injury. Loss occurs in several, often appearing relatively general and benign at first, such as being unable to participate in sport or a loss of motivation. These losses connect on a deeper psychological level, and that’s where it really hurts. Not being able to run due to an injury may seem innocent; however, the loss of not being able to participate in sport can profoundly impact our sense of connection to our communities, goals, and our identity. We place great emphasis on the role sport plays in our lives. When an injury threatens our ability to train and compete, it also threatens a deeper sense of who we believe we are or what we are trying to accomplish - we are going to feel that psychological sting.
With loss comes the potential for grief, sadness, despair, hopelessness, anger, and possibly depression. A common mistake is to try to fight with or push away these emotional experiences. These emotions show up for a reason. They indicate the value and meaning we place on the role of sport in our lives and the extent to which being an athlete occupies a primary place in our identities. We need to acknowledge and give space to the psychological impact. But there’s a fine line between working with the emotional experiences and allowing them to overtake the entirety of our existence. The deeper the perceived threat of identity loss is, the more profound the psychological impact on our well-being.
The second psychological aspect I pay attention to is the depth of conflict between mind and body. Runners tend to be a stubborn bunch (I get it; I’m one myself). We hold rigid ideas of what we think we need to do to be successful or feel good about our performance. Often, this takes shape in the form of numbers-chasing.
Anyone who has ever sought to run a certain number of kilometres per week (or taken that extra surge halfway down the block to get the watch from 6.93km to an even 7) knows what I’m talking about. 99.5km per week may be great, but it’s not 100, and that .5km can have a tendency to eat us up inside. When injured, the risk of wanting to hit an arbitrarily assigned number goals is high.
Thus, we are often pitted between listening to what our mind is telling us it thinks it needs versus listening to what our body is telling us we actually need. This conflict between mind and body is hard for most, worse for some. How you manage and decide what you listen to goes a long way for long term healing, recovery, and growth. This typically means sacrificing short-term numbers-seeking — letting go of mileage goals for weeks or months, for example — for the benefit of long-term recovery and healing. I’ve seen athletes make all kinds of choices they’ve later regretted in this battle.
Treating injuries requires healing both mind and body. You must bring awareness to the psychological experiences you are having. I often tell patients, “You cannot change what you are not aware of.” Any attempt at healing your mind and body is going to require a heavy dose of honest acknowledgment for what you are thinking and feeling related to the injury.
Next, you need to give yourself permission to realize these experiences are normal and common. Being injured is hard, and fighting with your emotional experiences or telling yourself, “you should just get over it” isn’t going to help. Sometimes internally uttering the phrase, “I’m noticing that ______,” followed by whatever thoughts and feelings you are experiencing provides just enough space to take a breath and reduce tension.
Recovering may require adjusting goals or shifting your race agenda for the upcoming weeks or months. By focusing on the recovery plan the same way you focus on the training plan—with precision, dedication, and commitment—you can still find a meaningful connection to the process. Just like getting fitter or faster, healing is a process that takes time. Meditation and mindfulness work are useful tools in calming the tendency for negative emotional experiences and helping the nervous system shift into a parasympathetic activity that is useful for healing.
Talking it out is helpful, too. There’s no harm seeking help from a counselor or psychologist (preferably one who knows the world of athletics and the mind of an athlete). If you ever feel the need to take a deeper dive on the mental side of injury recovery, please feel free to reach out.