We’ll start this blog with serious stuff then talk about practical solutions for overcoming the stress of injury.
When we can’t move, work out, or train how we wish, we come unglued…simple as that. Consider this blog your glue.
Maybe your boss exasperates you. Or maybe you’ve hit a rough patch in a relationship. Maybe you had a crappy childhood. Maybe it’s an accumulation of lots of little aggravations. More than ever, running (or substitute your favorite sport here) has become a lifeline, synonymous with oxygen. Running enables and empowers you to manage life’s stresses.
Then, you get injured. Your usual means of coping fades–either immediately following an acute injury, or worryingly-slowly in the case of an overuse injury.
You’re left feeling like a ball-obsessed retriever sentenced to an indefinite stay in a cage. Because you can’t move to process and cope with stress, feelings of frustration and impatience mount.
I call it the back up alarm effect. There you are–injured–lying on the sofa, and you hear something. It’s the familiar sound of a truck’s back up alarm. Beep, beep, beep. It gets louder and closer, stopping just before plowing you over. The back door opens. Out rushes all your stress and emotional baggage that movement used to help you process. Now you’re underneath it all, looking for daylight.
Instinctively, almost as if dreaming, you move magnetically toward your running shoes, hoping to ameliorate the chaos. Then you remember reality–you’re injured.
I experienced this sequence intensely. I had a cross country skiing accident that resulted in a rare knee fracture and complication called arthrofibrosis. At one point, I had a glorious dream–glorious until I awoke. It was precipitated by a series of stressful appointments where I learned even the best doctors in my hometown hadn’t seen a fracture like mine since residency—or ever. I had no idea when–if ever–I’d be able to return to my job; I couldn’t drive a car indefinitely; the path to healing was riddled with surgeons inexperienced with arthrofibrosis, one of whom suggested putting me in a full leg cast for eight weeks. No, thank you.
Riding my bike, either on or off road, had always magically dissipated my stress. Sometimes, I solved world and personal problems on my bike. Sometimes, I simply meditated and found a degree of calm and focus that is hard to find elsewhere. I found balance and grounding on my bike. Riding my bike empowered me to cope with life’s pitfalls, but after my injury I couldn’t even walk much less pedal a bike.
I believe my brain knew no other way to deal with my trauma than to induce a deep sleep and create a dreamy bike ride. I was in the south of France reliving my all-time favorite bike ride. I rode all day…around a beautiful lake that resembles Lake Tahoe called Lac de Sainte Croix, up the Gorges du Verdon (The Grand Canyon of France), across a bridge hundreds of feet above the Gorge, back down the Gorge, and finished the ride on the stunning roads around the other half of the lake. I remembered every blissful attribute: the smell of nature, the azure water, and the rugged geologic formations. I felt the wind blowing on my face as I descended switchback upon switchback.
Convinced that I was able-bodied and whole, I awoke and swung my legs–one of which was braced from thigh to ankle–over the side of my bed and started to stand up without crutches. Then reality hit. I heard the truck’s backup alarm beeping insistently. It was the universe shouting at me, “Hey, you! You need to find other ways to cope with this injury because cycling isn’t in the cards.”
Like me, for your sanity, you must find new ways to cope with the stress of injury (and, believe it or not, there are many), but where do you even start?
Step 1–Accepting your injury
Acceptance doesn’t mean you’ve drawn a “GO TO JAIL: Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200” card. If Jail is your mind working against you, acceptance is actually your “Get out Jail free card”—well, maybe not free, but you get the idea.
Think of it this way: Asking “Why me?” or showing up to your own pity party over and over equates to emotional Jail. Acceptance means you can move forward–get out of jail–from the emotional trauma of injury toward healing and practical solutions.
I wrote about reaching 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 and overcome the stress of injury.
Step 2–Understanding your nervous system, so it works with instead of against you
Your nervous system is divided into two parts. Your sympathetic nervous system allows you to outrun your Mom when she chased you with a wooden spoon. It’s responsible for that fight-or-flight feeling–a racing heart, sweaty palms, nausea, etc.
It’s also largely responsible for keeping you from experiencing happiness because its activation leads to feelings of anxiety and fear.
Your parasympathetic nervous system controls involuntary functions like heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. It also helps slow your heart rate. It’s responsible for feelings of calm, release, grounding, and clarity, including that zen feeling you experience while running or cycling or whatever activity you prefer.
I discuss more about your nervous system in this blog.
Your capacity to handle stress hinges on turning down your sympathetic nervous system and accessing your parasympathetic nervous system. The options we talk about from here forward will allow you to access that feeling of intense accord that you’ve come to rely on from your sport. Will you feel exactly the same as when you’re running or training for your next triathlon? No, but I promise if you approach these ideas with the structure and attention you give your normal movement regime, you will feel light-years better.
This won’t be the last time I suggest meditation as a powerful tool for taming stress. I was an unabashed skeptic at first, but now I’m a true believer. Meditation gives you breathing room between yourself and stress. It enables you to reflect instead of react.
Step 4–Get help working through your issues from the past
Think of your injury as your own personal Yoda whispering, “Opportunity in injury there is.” Injury creates a chance to clean up haunting issues from the past. If you don’t deal with them now, like The Terminator, they will be back.
I know. You’re probably saying, “I’m fine. This stuff really doesn’t bother me when I can run.”
Guess what? Exercise doesn’t make issues and emotional pain disappear; it just turns the volume down. You can’t always rely on exercise to muffle pain from the past; take this opportunity to deal with it head on. And when you do, notice how you feel releasing heavy burdens from the past.
I recommend a powerful form of therapy called EMDR. You can read more about it and find providers here (this is a blog I wrote), here, and here. Think of it this way: Traditional talk therapy is like mowing over a weed. It works in some cases. EMDR is like pulling a weed out from the root.
Step 5–Learn a musical instrument
A friend I met on one of my many trips to The Steadman Clinic for surgery said, “I knew I was going to be lying on the couch a lot. It was either learn a musical instrument or smoke a lot of weed.” With practice, she became a proficient guitar player and now plays regular gigs and open mic nights around town.
An alternative to exercise grew into a passion for her, and it likely will for you too. She ultimately returned to training, but maintains her love of guitar playing.
Another friend who plays drums said it best. “I’m shocked by the difference that playing and performing has made for me. Easing back and disappearing into a song, whether it be contemplative or aggressive, always beings that lack of self–that feeling of serving something greater–that takes me out of my own head and short circuits my anxieties. If I’d known it before, I never would have stopped playing. I would always have kept busy with it–sounds grandiose, but I do believe that for me, music is truly a life-saving endeavor.”
Step 6–Volunteer or help a friend
Nothing removes the fog of self-pity, pain, and stress of injury faster than volunteering or helping a friend in need. Volunteering focuses your brain on something healthy–empathy, connection with other people, and appreciation.
Step 7–Take a class
Set a timer for 5 minutes and create a list of all the things you’ve wanted to learn but haven’t because “I’m too busy.”
Pick one item, search around in your community, and sign up for a class.
Classes provide goals, community, and accountability. They give you something on which to focus, and what you focus on grows.
I could write an entire book on all the fun, stress-curbing options to explore. I bet you have a list of things you’d love to do or learn somewhere in the recesses of your brain. Take time and write out that list, then go exploring.
The key to feeling less stress is beginning to do something different than what you’re doing right now, and then sticking with it–at the beginning when bitterness about your injury obfuscates your openness to new activities, all the way until you’re proficient.
Practicing these activities–even when you’d rather mindlessly comb Facebook or watch Netflix–will create a stress refuge. They will afford you much of the same peace and zen as your sport. You just have to show up and do them.