How to Mentally Recover After Injury and Get Back to Your Favorite Activities
Most of us have experienced, or will experience, pain or injury multiple times in our lives. Getting the right help to bring our bodies back into health can feel hard enough, and if we’re lucky enough to reach a point where we’re ready to get back to our favorite sport or activity, it can feel like an impossible mountain to climb.
We ask ourselves questions like:
“What if it happens again?”
“If there’s pain, do I stop or push through?”
“What if I do this thing and get re-inured so badly I can’t even walk?! Maybe I’m just not meant to be a ______ (runner, cyclist, mountaineer, swimmer, CrossFiter).”
I learned to run again after 8 years of believing I never would:
As most of you know, I had knee pain that prevented me from running for 8 years.
Now, I can run anything – short, long, pavement, trail, uphill, down steep mountains…and most of the time I’m completely pain-free.
I say most of the time because I’ve promised to never bullshit you, and the truth is on rare occasions I do have twinges of knee pain. However, it no longer scares me or stops me from doing what I love, and – by experiencing knee pain sometimes, I’ve discovered a few amazing facts about recovery after long standing injuries that will help me help you get back out there too.
I just went running the other day for the first time in a month or so. The first few steps were creaky and stiff, and I noticed a familiar tightening around my left knee – the kind that years ago would have meant sharp stabbing knee pain if I ran even one more minute.
Instead of contracting in fear or cutting my run short, I was able to use a trick I’ve learned well over the past 5 years and nothing came of those creaky joints except more movement, fluidity and I had a pain-free run.
I want to let you in on this trick so you can apply it to your own body and sport. I believe we can do whatever we want, if we can just find a way to support our bodies.
Mind games can work FOR or against us! Our choice.
Let’s say you just recovered from an acute or long standing injury. You’ve been “cleared” to get back out there.
Those first few moments as we return to an activity that either produced a sudden and scary injury, or perhaps gave us pain for years or stopped us from doing something for a long time? They can be terrifying and produce all kinds of mind games.
The overwhelming nervous system response seems to be one of FEAR:
Fear of pain.
Fear of re-injury.
Fear that we’ll set ourselves back another month or year or decade.
Fear that we won’t get this right and we’ll have to give up the activity we love for good.
Your mind might even be re-creating the pain or accident like a movie it’s watching on re-play, in slow-mo. You watch yourself get injuried over and over and over.
If you’ve ever tried to return to an activity after injury then you probably know what I’m talking about.
Your mind might even be clever enough to convince you you’re not afraid, but YOUR BODY KNOWS THE TRUTH.
Our bodies simply manifest what we are telling them with our subconscious or nervous system.
The subconscious doesn’t recognize negatives! Use this to your advantage:
Have you ever tried telling a kid NOT to do something?
Maybe you remember what it was like being a kid and hearing an adult tell you “Don’t throw that rock! You better not throw that rock…!”
Did you throw the rock? I’m pretty sure even if you didn’t right then, you probably found a rock to throw when they weren’t looking! Or in the very least you probably threw it in your mind, as a movie you got to direct and start in.
This is because our subconscious mind doesn’t process NEGATIVES!
As an adult, how many times have you told yourself to STOP doing something, whether it be smoking, eating too much sugar, sitting on your ass too much, dating the wrong kinds of people…only to do it even more?
Here’s how this applies to injury in sports and getting back out there:
Too often, we’re focused on wanting to NOT feel pain or NOT re-injure ourselves.
For eight years I would attempt to run, and every time I would obsessively re-play the same stabbing pain in my knees like a movie, while saying to myself “Please don’t hurt, please don’t hurt, please don’t hurt.”
Well, all my subconscious mind hears and sees is KNEE PAIN, KNEE PAIN, KNEE PAIN!
The nervous system regulates the body, and (I believe) whatever we believe about our bodies, our nervous system will program into our fascia.
If you don’t believe me, just think about this: have you ever noticed that we tend to experience the same injury or pain over and over and over? While I might feel challenged by knee pain as a pattern, you might be stuck in a low back pain program while other people always get headaches or wrist injuries.
This isn’t a coincidence!
The good news is, we can use this very same mechanism and REPROGRAM ourselves for health.
First, we have to recognize the OLD programming and name it for what it is: an old story that’s no longer true.
We have to change the stories we tell ourselves, and the movies we play in our imaginations.
Here’s why this works, and how to make it work FOR you:
Go back in your mind to a time when you were re-starting a sport or activity after injury.
If this is right now, then you can do this in your mind even if you’re not doing that sport at the moment. Just IMAGINE you are starting to run again, ski again, get on that bike or whatever activity it is for you…
Notice what happens in your body.
When that old familiar pain even so much as WHISPERS to you…what happens in your body?
Chances are, at the mere suggestion of the old familiar pain (whether brought on by your mind OR your body, or both) your body will start to CONTRACT. This can be due to fear, or a desire to protect or stay vigilant or any number of reasons.
At precisely THIS MOMENT we have a choice, and what we decide will determine whether we experience pain again, OR turn the entire experience into one of strengthening our vitality, trust, ability and limitlessness.
On my recent run, in that moment when my body started to contract I stopped that program from doing its autopilot re-run thing, and RELAXED my nervous system instead. I found fluidity, freedom and space in mind first, and this translated into my body feeling the same.
How did I do it?
I had to contact the part of my mind that BELIEVES I can run without knee pain. I had to redirect my focus and find evidence of ability instead of evidence I should stop.
These days, it’s easy for me. I’ve been running pain-free for 5 years now…so the evidence is abundant.
If you’re newly returning to a sport, you have to find the part of you that believes you’ll be ok, that you can do this thing you love, that your body is an amazingly intelligent, highly adaptable instrument of movement capable of healing from almost ANYTHING.
Focus on what you believe you’re capable of. Focus on your LOVE of this sport. Focus on how GOOD it will feel to be running, swimming, surfing or climbing mountains again.
If you can’t find any evidence that you are ok and will be ok and can do this activity again, then use someone else as inspiration! Use me. Use this guy (freaking amazing). Or this woman (I don’t know if I’m that brave!)
Obviously, if you’re still injured or there’s something physically preventing you from returning to your activity – that’s another story and you have to take care of that first. Much of the time however, it’s our minds that trip us up and re-create the same old story of pain.
I cannot convey to you enough just how critical it is to get our BRAINS, in particular our SUBCONSCIOUS minds, on the side of health.
If you want to be unstoppable then you HAVE to create NEW STORIES for your subconscious to run that are empowering, freeing and limitless.
The subconscious rules everything, and whatever it believes it will prove physically.
Now it’s your turn to give this a try!
You don’t even have to leave your safe and cozy house, if you want to try this with just your mind to start. Our brains are so powerful we can re-create those nervous system patterns just by using our imaginations!
At some point though, if you want to return to an activity with confidence, you have to DECIDE to do just that. Then go do it.
I believe in you.
I believe in your body.