Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: When Injury Disrupts Exercise: Five Ways to Reduce Stress

sneakersThere is considerable evidence that exercise benefits our mental health. Research suggests that in addition to improving memory, lifting mood, moderating depression, and reducing attention fatigue, exercise is a significant stress reducer.

Whether you are a varsity player, a daily walker, a gym rat or an avid golfer, it is likely that the exercise you do helps you psychologically as well as physically. What happens when you get injured?

In most cases physical injury happens in the two minutes we never see coming.  It is physically and psychologically disruptive because it not only involves physical pain and concern about intervention and recovery; it reminds us of the unpredictability of life, and the reality of our vulnerability. For athletes, as well as those determined to exercise, it is a loss that insults our sense of self as well as our sense of mastery.

 “ I can’t be injured, we are in the semi-finals. I have to play!”

 “ I just got the motivation and the routine going and now I break my ankle?”

 “ What will I do if I can’t golf?”

  • If you have ever been taken off the court or out of your usual routine by injury, it is likely you have felt the constraints of a Catch 22.
  • At a time when you are feeling more pain and stress than usual, the one thing you can’t do is use your usual stress reducer–Exercise will make matters worse!

How Do You Proceed?

No matter what anyone says in the first hours, days or week of an injury, it won’t feel right.

“ So You Won’t Run Anymore- You will Do Something Else!” 

“ Don’t Worry—You will be back.”

It is difficult to suddenly adjust to the loss of something that has added value to your life and it is also difficult to suddenly believe you will be ok, when you don’t feel ok. But it does get better…

What seems impossible starts to become possible when you realize there are many ways to reduce stress if you are able to focus on healing, open options, risk possibilities, and draw upon your resiliencies.

Five Ways To Reduce Stress

Become Mission Focused

After an athletic injury or an injury that impedes your usual exercise routine, it is to your advantage both physically and psychologically to be mission focused.

  • Physically, you want to know about the nature of your injury, necessary interventions, prognosis, treatment and rehabilitation.
  • Drawing upon the support of family and friends as you weigh options adds a healing connection and often enhances problem solving.
  • Having a purpose stirs energy and goal setting.
  • Psychologically, a pro-active position is always a boon to healing because it restores a sense of control and mastery.  Focusing on your healing with determination and positive expectation is the antidote to hopelessness and despair.

Move It Along

When injured, most athletes and those committed to an exercise routine miss the movement, aerobic benefits, and neurochemical surge that come with exercising. Finding a way to move it along might include:

  • Cross Training- If physically possible, an important option in the aftermath of injury is cross training. In reality, cross training, i.e. the use of varying exercises or the focus on different parts of your body is beneficial whether injured or not. It reduces stress, boredom, burnout, repeated stress injury and challenges the body in a different way.

Each injury has introduced me (not by choice) to an alternative exercise routine that I came to value and never dropped.

  • Physical Therapy- If indicated, physical therapy is not only a source of recommended therapeutic movement but of support, healing and achievable goals. As such, it is physically and psychologically relieving.
  • Being Good At Being Bad at Something New- Getting good at this skill suggested by Otto and Smits, authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, is invaluable after injury because it opens all the doors of possibility.If you are willing to try a new exercise or athletic experience without the expectation or need to be good at it, it is a win-win. In the best of situations you love it. In the worst of possibilities, you have had a novel experience and a ridiculous story to tell!

A one-time runner who resigned himself to walk the dog through the neighborhood was startled by what unfolded between the response of neighbors to the dog and to him.

Take A New Look At Your Old Exercise Routine

Very often after injury,  you can miss your old exercise routine. It is worth considering what made it so important to you, so stress reducing, so restorative. It may well have been a function of a number of factors – not just the physical movement of the exercise itself. As such, it is valuable to identify those factors so that you can re-set them into your life–whether you are exercising or not.

  • Maybe you loved being outdoors while you exercised.
  • Maybe you enjoyed being away from the house and the family for a definite set time.
  • Maybe you loved the music you listened to when you exercised.
  • Maybe you really looked forward to sharing time with a group of men or women.
  • Maybe you enjoyed doing something that was meditative.

A closer look at your favorite exercise routine expands stress reduction into many dimensions.

Work on a Different Goal

  • There is something to be said about multi-tasking when it helps you not watch water boil or injuries heal.
  • A valuable and often unexpected stress reducer that some people set in motion when they come to know that they will be away from the gym, road or bicycle club for awhile, is a completely different goal in tandem with their rehab and recovery.
  • Be it taking or giving a course, refinishing furniture, making jewelry, planning a trip or studying a language, the competitive goal is valuable in that it offers a need to look away from the injury and loss.
  • It offers a new and different perspective on the need and use of time.

Re-Open Your Drawer of Resiliency Traits

A valuable source of stress reduction that we often overlook can be found in the consideration of our own resiliency traits. Be it intelligence, creativity, social skills, spirituality, musicality, artistic ability, love of nature or culinary creations—any of these can be used as entrée to activities and relationships that refuel us, validate our talents and heal in many ways.

The Gift of A New Worldview

It is difficult to journey from our necessary illusion of control and body mastery through injury, disruption, stress and healing without personally changing.

For many, the change is beyond physical and psychological restoration.

It is a sense of humility for what we can and cannot control and a sense of gratitude for what we can.

It is a respect and appreciation for those whose suffering persists.

It is the gift of a worldview that you can rarely find in easy places.