Emotions: The Mental “Ouch” from Injury

Athletic injuries can take a toll, not just on the body, but also on the psyche. For some athletes, their identity revolves around their sport; being injured can lead to feeling lost and big questions such as “Who am I?” Why are your emotional reactions to injury important? The body is attached to the brain and the heart. In other words, mental and emotional functioning play big roles in bouncing back.

Reactions

Reactions can vary wildly, and there is no one “right” reaction.  Some athletes may grieve the loss, while others view their situation as a chance to show the same kind of courage/determination with rehab as they demonstrate on the field. Feelings can be mixed too; even driven athletes might experience some relief from pressure to perform (and they might simultaneously feel guilt!). No matter what emotions you face during injury and recovery, it is important to recognize that you have commonalities with other injured athletes and your experience will be unique to you.

Type of Injury

Recovering from a concussion, you may experience different emotions than if you have experienced a torn ACL or other musculoskeletal injury. The recovery process for concussions is typically less clear-cut and they’re harder to detect than other injuries. You may experience uncontrollable emotions or feel like you’re “in a fog” for a little while, and you might struggle with following through with the required physical rest. Recovery from an ACL injury can be linked with emotional changes and a single ACL injury is more likely to cause lingering emotional changes after rehab, whereas a single concussion may not lead to any lasting emotional change.

However, with recurring concussions, do pay close attention to the emotional regulation of athletes. Repeated concussions have been linked to lasting changes in brain functioning, emotions, and psychological health. The ability to pay attention and concentrate can be greatly decreased, and the likelihood of being diagnosed with depression increases significantly with multiple concussions. Long-term emotional changes such as irritability, feeling like you’re always in a fog, and nervousness have also been linked to multiple concussions. If you, or someone you know, have been repeatedly concussed, paying attention to changes in your mood and functioning can be critical to the prevention of chronic or life threatening neurological issues; when in doubt consult your physician or neurologist. From a proactive mental health perspective, athletic trainers, coaches, parents, and teammates should also be tuned into these changes to help identify signs of depression such as sadness, irritability and emotional outbursts, disengagement and isolation, feelings of apathy, risk-taking, or especially, suicidal thoughts.

Checking In

Regardless of injury type, know that it’s not uncommon for you to experience emotional shifts during your recovery process. If you are struggling with injury, it may help to reflect on the culture of your sport, your values, and your identity, and you don’t have to do it alone- counseling can help.  Asking these questions may help:

  • Do you participate in a sport where injuries are common and where you are told to “just shake it off” or “get over it”? Would support outside of your sport be helpful?
  • What are the benefits of your sport participation– what are you losing from being injured and are there healthy ways to fill those voids?
  • Are you under scholarship and at risk of losing compensation? If so, are there staff, in Athletics or Financial Aid, who can help you with figuring out a financial “Plan B?”
  • What do your teammates say about your injury? Coaches? Do you have good social support through your recovery process? What can you do to enhance these relationships and/or to be supported elsewhere?
  • What pressure do you face from being injured and not able to play? Will you be more likely to try to participate even when still injured? Can you be honest with yourself about your physical and psychological needs so that you don’t come back too quickly or overdo it (and re-injure yourself)?

Athletic trainers, physical therapists, and significant others can benefit from education on the psychological responses to injury. These individuals are important sources of social support during recovery; sharing emotions with them (and especially with a counselor or mental performance coach) can help you to avoid bottling emotions.

No injury is fully healed unless the psychological and emotional responses to it are acknowledged and treated. To heal your body, you also must heal your mind.

About the Author:

Alex Oldham
Master's student in Sport Psychology at Florida State University. Intern at Reaching Ahead Counseling and Mental Performance.

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