The Mental Side of Injury: What to Do When Your Recovery Isn’t Going So Swimmingly

“How are you feeling after yesterday?” my friend Todd asked me as we walked down the steps toward the pool. “I feel good,” I replied.

“Aren’t your shoulders sore?” he asked. “Not at all,” I replied. “Hmmm. I think my shoulders are sore from pounding against the current for so long,” he said.

The day before, my swimming friends and I channeled our inner child and took a fieldtrip to the cold, pristine spring-fed San Marcos River.

We have a routine. We swim upstream against a strong current then relish in the dolphin-speed return swim to our starting point.

The river winds sharply right then sharply left, and how you position yourself in the bends makes the difference between a steady current and a raging jet stream of a current. Shifting your line even one foot left or right changes everything,

Catching our breath after our first swim upstream, my friend Cate and I looked at each other and said, “Wow. That current is a lot stronger than I remember.” Both of us admitted to struggling on our first lap upstream.

I’m a strong swimmer, but when I found myself in the jet stream, I panicked. My smooth and rhythmic stroke came unglued as I fought to advance even an inch.

Eventually, I decided to let the current push me backward, take a few breaths on my back, and then regroup with a different line. Once I relaxed and accepted that I was going to advance verrrrry slowly and even be pushed backward at times, my smooth and efficient stroke returned.

swimming upstream

About 6 inches to the right of where I’m swimming in this photo was a wretched current, but where I’m swimming the current is perfectly manageable.

As I eased into a manageable current, I thought, “Ah, this is a metaphor for injury recovery!”

How many times have you thrashed and fought against your injury?

Your determination will serve you well–to a point. For example, your bullheaded determination to achieve a self-imposed recovery milestone at all costs will likely result in a setback. It sounds a lot like thrashing against a current and getting pushed backward, eh?

Many times, our expectations sabotage our recovery. We end up doing whatever it takes–even making unwise activity decisions–to reach our inflexible and often unrealistic goals.

The truth is your body is going to take as long as it needs to heal.

As my friend Jamie says, “The enemy is not your body. It’s the little voices in your head. Listen to the ones that speak softly. PS–This is an area where women tend to be better than men. Men, by nature, are hard-headed.”

English Channel swimmer

In September 2015, Jamie Tout completed the prestigious triple crown of open water swimming with the Catalina Channel Swim at age 62. He’s swum the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (10 times). He’s also the second oldest swimmer to log those endurance swims. 30 years passed between the first two legs of the triple crown and the third!!

Always remember, the more your brain and body fight, the more precious energy you waste. You have to decide how you choose to spend your energy–thrashing spectacularly and fighting or healing and recovering.

So how can you stop thrashing and fighting against the current (aka your injury)?

Acceptance

This is your first step on the injury recovery journey. My friend Frank shared a key to his recovery which is a key to all recoveries: When I had a shoulder injury followed by surgery last year, the single thing that led to a great recovery (aside from having an outstanding surgeon and PT) was owning the injury: accepting it, accepting that it would require both patience and work on my part, and owning my responsibility in the healing process. Once I owned and accepted it, the patience, motivation, and responsibility came easily.”

I wrote about acceptance and why it matters here.

Once you reach acceptance, a whole new world opens up, and you will be able to explore the opportunities in injury.

Use other parts of your brain…the ones you don’t use while practicing your sport…also known as creativity

Last year, I got an email from an injured runner, which isn’t so unusual. The twist is she’s a physical therapist used to caring for injured people and now the tables were turned.

I wrote back suggesting she explore other parts of her brain. I said, “As human beings, we are vessels with infinite dimensions, but as athletes we really only realize one dimension–the athletic one. That’s not sustainable for a lifetime. After this all passes, you’ll realize you aren’t Amy the marathon runner, you’re Amy the (fill in the blank with all the things you uncover about yourself while you’re injured) who also enjoys running.”

Let’s have a quick time out so you can understand why using other parts of your brain is so important.

Our nervous system is divided into two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Your sympathetic nervous system allows you to run like Wonder Woman away from hungry tigers. It’s responsible for that fight-or-flight feeling–a racing heart, sweaty palms, nausea, etc.

Your parasympathetic nervous system controls involuntary functions like heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. It also helps slow your heart rate.

When you’re injured and fighting a strong current, your sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive, and it feeds off of itself in a cycle. Before you know it, you’re living in fight-or-flight.

Any activity that allows you to turn off your sympathetic nervous system and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system will enable you to swim upstream with a smooth, relaxed rhythm.

~That’s the end of my nervous system time out.

swimming

Finding a different, injury-friendly way to move connected me with wonderful people. In the top photo, I’m swimming in the cold, crystal clear waters of the San Marcos River with my dear friend, Cate (I’m on the left; she’s on the right). In the bottom photo, we’re hanging out at the ladder gathering steam to swim upstream again. Top to bottom: Tucker, me, Cate, Todd.

So, let’s talk about some of these activities.

To explore your other dimensions is to explore creativity. I define creativity as doing something new…something you don’t normally do. It could very well be creativity in a traditional sense, or it could be something like exploring a new language or learning to play an instrument.

Every day, your recovery depends on you using the creative or softer side of your brain. You need to gravitate away from the “faster, harder, stronger” part of your brain, for using it will only lead to anguish…but exercising the creative side of your brain leads to patience and peace which means fighting the current way less.

Think of it this way: You’re used to working out your body most days, now it’s time to work out your mind because your mind is the quarterback of your recovery.

Every time you exercise creativity you wear a path in your brain that engages your parasympathetic nervous system. The more worn the path, the more you find freedom from things like: wondering what you’ll do with all the extra time on your hands; jealousy of your friends who can do what you can’t; and pent up stress and frustration from missing self-imposed goals.

To uncover what’s of interest to you, get a piece of paper and a pen. It’s time to brainstorm all the things you’ve wanted to learn or try along with all the things that brought you joy as a child. What brought you joy at 7 will bring you joy at 35 or 75. Think back on your life and on all the skills that you once dreamed of learning, or saw in someone else and was impressed, and write them down.

Here are a few ideas to get you started: learn to swim by taking adult swim lessons; explore cooking; learn a musical instrument; send handwritten letters to people who have supported your recovery; learn a foreign language; hike; learn photography (not just point-and-shoot, but the principles of photography); volunteer; take a sculpture class; kayak or canoe; write.

You’ll find lots of creativity tips on my Sound Familiar? and The Road Back pages, and in this blog.

Also, do include yoga and meditation on your list. We have hard evidence that shows us it’s impossible for the sympathetic nervous system to take you on a journey down the fight-or-flight Autobahn when you’re practicing yoga and meditation.

I suggest the app Headspace to get started with meditation.

Before you start yoga, talk with your physical therapist. There are plenty of restorative and Kundalini yoga classes that provide all the benefits of a physical class with none of the physical stress. A good, free online resource I recommend is doyogawithme.com.

Want to know Dirty Little Secret #74? Swimming in cold water can also help kick on your parasympathetic nervous system. If you don’t have access to a cold spring-fed swimming hole, a cold lake or even a cold shower will do. Stay under the water until you begin shivering. Get out and wrap yourself in a few towels and a heavy blanket. The tighter the wrap the better. You’ll shiver and shake for a bit, but eventually you’ll be overcome with a calm, peaceful euphoria. That’s your parasympathetic nervous system kicking in.

San Marcos River

The cold, pristine waters of San Marco Springs

In fact, swimming in cold water is so effective that it’s recommended for recovering addicts. The same neurochemicals released during a high are released after cold water swimming.

You’ve likely spent hours fighting against your injury, swimming against an ass-kicking current. Now it’s time to refocus your energy toward mental efficiency and grace.

Find a combination of activities that suits you, create a schedule to practice them, then show up and practice. And don’t forget to say goodbye to thrashing, fighting, and the hungry tigers chasing you.

Epilogue: Avoid Screens

The creative skills you learn will have many benefits, including alleviating the loneliness and boredom that can come with injury. However, keep in mind two concepts. Firstly, boredom is not necessarily a bad thing and having a sense of peace in the absence of external stimuli is itself a skill to be cultivated and cherished. Second, all too often, we rid ourselves of boredom by turning to screens–“reality” TV, Facebook pseudo-friends, and YouTube cat videos. Stuart Whatley makes a compelling case that these all-too-easy habits are akin to addictions to painkillers and in the long run can exacerbate our feelings of loneliness and boredom. Stay away from passive, screen-oriented activities and nurture tangible, creative skills.

Forward>>>Heidi

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