How Physical Injuries Affect Your Mental Health

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
A few years ago, I fell on the sidewalk and broke three of the five fingers on my right hand. At the time, I laughed it off because it made for a funny story about me being clumsy, but it immediately became un-funny when I my entire hand was put in a cast for six weeks, and I was sobbing in my apartment because I couldn't put in my contacts, hold a fork, or type an email. Working out wasn't an option either, because the pain was so bad. It might have been "just" a hand injury, but being incapacitated really bummed me out.
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Beyond the physical effects, getting injured can impact your mental health in a big way, whether you're an athlete, a casual exerciser, or just an active person. "[An injury] is a realization of the fact that you’re not invincible, and that things can take us all out at different times," says Deborah Roche, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery who specializes in sports psychology and injury rehab. "It does take a shot to the confidence, and when our abilities are taken away it’s really eye-opening."
After an injury, many people feel sad, frustrated, depressed, anxious, nervous, and fearful, Dr. Roche says. "It can often be a grief process, [because] even if it's temporary, there's still loss involved," she says. You may also feel like you're out of control, which can be tough to cope with for lots of people.
Getting injured can be particularly difficult for millennials, who pride themselves on feeling autonomous and independent, because it makes them vulnerable, Dr. Roche says. "We've become so used to doing things on our own that asking for help has become misconstrued with being weak," she says. Some people might feel bad about the fact that their injury is causing them stress or sadness, because they think they should be able to just get over it on their own. "Even when people come in and talk, there's this sense of, This shouldn't bother me. Why am I not just okay?" she says.
But the thing is, no matter how seemingly insignificant or "funny" you're making your injury sound, it's worth it to ask for help if it's wearing on you. A therapist can validate your feelings that the recovery process is hard and frustrating, Dr. Roche says. "Being able to reflect that back is tremendously powerful," she says. They can also work on "putting you back in the driver's seat," and help you develop a sense of control and power over your situation.
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A big part of therapy might be working on managing daily stress (like how you'll get to and from work, and who will help you walk up and down stairs in the subway station), Dr. Roche says. Often breaking up the process into smaller milestones, and making short-term goals with a therapist can make a long, extensive recovery seem more manageable. "It's easy to get lost in what you can't do. But looking back and saying, Okay, but post-op you couldn't be weight-bearing, and now you have some mobility back, helps," she says. If you can't afford a therapist (especially on top of all the medical bills you might be dealing with), you may want to find a group of like-minded people (for example, if you're a runner, find a running group) who can understand and empathize with what you're going through.
Of course, everyone is different, and some people may take longer to come back from an injury for various reasons. If you're an athlete, for example, your sport or activity may feel like part of your identity, Dr. Roche says. "In a way, an injury can really pull the rug out," she says. During the physical therapy process, a lot of people feel frustrated because their bodies don't feel the same as they did before getting injured, she says. Not to mention, simply dealing with the pain can really get to some people. "Physical therapists are on the front lines: they're really good at being able to say, You're normal for feeling this way, it's totally reasonable that you're crying." In fact, a lot of times physical therapists are the ones who refer people to psychologists, she says.
One of the most important things to remember when you're injured is that eventually you'll be back to your old ways, Dr. Roche says. "Frame it in a way that you can feel empowered — this isn't a permanent state of affairs, it's temporary," she says. She's right: After some humbling occupational therapy, and a few weeks of using the dictation iPhone tool, I was back.
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