Overcoming The Mental Consequences Of Exercise Injuries
Exercise has been shown time and time again to have a positive influence on mental wellbeing. It can reduce anxiety and stress, increase self-esteem, boost your mood, and improve sleep. It’s no wonder so many people use exercise as one of their main coping tools. I am sure you’ve heard similar phrases to “Running is cheaper than therapy” or “The gym is my therapy” which I will unpack later. So what happens when an injury renders you unable to partake in exercise? Feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-worth may creep back in. This is why it is so important to make sure you have more than one coping mechanism in your tool kit, like talking with a friend, going to therapy, reading, painting, journaling, and practicing mindfulness to name a handful.
Now back to the idea that exercise = therapy. Like I said, movement is an amazing component for improving mental health. However, it is not the only one and it is not the same as therapy. While movement can reduce symptoms of mental health issues and contribute to your overall well being, working with a therapist allows you to delve deeper into root issues contributing to unhelpful patterns or life dissatisfaction, to understand yourself better, and to develop more coping skills.
During this time, be cognizant of your inner dialogue and watch out for warning signs similar to the thoughts listed below.
“Walking/low-impact movement doesn’t count as a workout.”
“I’m just being lazy.”
“I have to burn # of calories if I want to eat.”
“Resting is for the weak.”
“My body betrayed me.”
“I must be weak since I got injured.”
“I should just push myself. No pain, no gain.”
“If I can’t work out, I’m going to gain weight (or lose “fitness gains”, strength, etc.).”
A therapist can help you change the way you think about exercise and movement and to challenge unhelpful beliefs or attitudes about exercise to make room for joyful movement. Ask yourself, would I exercise if it didn’t contribute to weight loss or a change in my physique? Am I using exercise to avoid certain feelings? Do I actually enjoy the type of movement I participate in?
Studies in sports psychology have shown that injuries have detrimental effects on athletes’ mental health including suicidal ideation, performance anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and post-traumatic stress following an injury. While physical therapy is essential to recovery, mental health therapy carries the same amount of weight. Researchers exploring the psychological effects of ankle injuries found that when injured athletes had psychological support in addition to physical rehabilitation, they felt more confident in managing their stress and reaching out for help which allowed them to recover in a shorter amount of time.
Compulsive exercise, commonly known as the “healthy addiction,” increases the risk of exercise injury and re-injury. When those who struggle with compulsive exercise sustain an injury, it makes sense that the “healthy addiction” may be replaced by substance misuse or other self-harm behaviors in order to numb unpleasant emotions like loss of control, sadness, grief, and loneliness. It is important to seek help if you or someone you know may be struggling with compulsive exercise.
- Be gentle on yourself and let yourself rest. Your body is trying to tell you something, and we need breaks. While you may be eager to get right back into the swing of things, time off now is better in the long run for healing properly (physically, mentally, emotionally), and being able to engage in movement more effectively down the line.
- Allow yourself to feel your feelings without having to push toward acceptance. It’s okay to feel angry, sad or hopeless. Injuries are a total bummer, this is your time to grieve.
- Talk or write about those feelings to release them. This will help create more opportunities for others to bear witness to + validate your feelings, as well as cultivate a practice of validating your own feelings.
- Reach out to others and accept their support. This can be related to practical things like getting groceries or needing help around the house as well as emotional support. Eating disorders and other mental health issues thrive in isolation which means that social connection is key to recovery.
- Consider other coping tools. Brainstorm new strategies and activities to alleviate stress, and try things out that you may not have considered before.
- Work with a therapist. You don’t have to do this alone, and while there may be a stigma against asking for help, especially when you’re used to doing it by yourself or being strong, our Autonomy Therapy clinicians believe that reaching out for support is a sign of strength, not weakness.
GETTING STARTED WITH THERAPY
Ready to begin a deep dive into healing your relationship with movement? Download our Essential Guide to Enjoying Movement and contact us for a free 15-minute consultation to be matched with one of our clinicians if you’re ready to begin therapy.