Recovering from injury: coping physically and emotionally
Facing the Darkness on Crutches: Dealing with Depression after a Sports Injury
It was a stupid, stupid mistake; but in mere milliseconds, I lost months of work, lost my goals, and lost a serious part of my identity and confidence. It sounds dramatic, but a training injury released a far greater crisis than I would have ever anticipated.
I’ve had sports injuries before; debilitating, out-for-weeks injuries. I’ve watched friends recovering from injuries. But this one has somehow been different. If I thought I was being overly dramatic, I would just keep to myself and wait it out, but sometimes in the late hours of the night I go down the “Google Rabbit Hole.” For athletes, sports injuries and depression after an injury are a very real thing—not just at the pro level, but at every level of fitness.
That’s how depression can set in after an injury. I had been putting in 15 hours a week getting ready for the upcoming cycling season. That was time away from friends, saying no to dates with cute boys when I wanted to say yes, sacrificing time with my family, giving up my time outdoors. But I wanted to become a better cyclist and see how well I could do this season. And then a combination of a silly mistake and bad luck made those sacrifices seem all for nothing. I wound up with a sprained MCL and a bone bruised tibia, an unknown timeline of when I would be back at it, and four dilemmas:
Problem One: On crutches, my endorphin load went from constant runner’s highs to ground zero.
Problem Two: In the world of endurance athletes where everyone is constantly stressed about weight (which is another blog post in itself…), I suddenly found myself terrified of gaining weight. I watched my muscles atrophy, felt my waistbands get tight, and envied every single jogger I saw.
Problem Three: I had no outlet. I drank too much wine and looked for anything that would give me that same, exercise-induced emotional bump. I couldn’t find anything.
Problem Four: I am a personal trainer, a coach, an outdoorswoman, and a fitness writer. If I’m not healthy, if I can’t get outside, who am I?
Sound like #firstworldproblems? Sure, I still had a roof over my head and food on the table, but what we’re talking about is chemical brain changes. Chemicals have no perspective. As far as my brain chemicals will tell me, the sky is falling. That’s how depression can set in after an injury.
Recovering from an injury emotionally as well as physically
Athletes are made out to be strong inspirations, both physically and mentally. Aren’t we supposed to get a Bob Costas montage about our injury comeback? We’d rather talk about Picabo Street on her comeback run than when she stayed in a dark room for three months. Darkness is uncomfortable.
I was once told, “There’s the science of sport, and then there’s the art of coaching.” This sits with me everywhere I go. The science of sport can be learned if you bury your head in the numbers and the studies. The art of coaching requires you to take a deeper look at yourself, tap into your intuition, release your ego, and help your athletes be successful, both at their sport and in life. We may not all be coaches, but at one point or another we are a “coach” to someone—whether it’s moral support for a friend’s health goals, a pep talk to a running buddy, or a “yes you can” to an adventurer’s crazy dreams. When it’s time to be that “coach,” we need to be upfront about athletes, injuries, and depression. There’s some important stuff down that Google Rabbit Hole.
Helping friends recover from a sports injury
I haven’t quite found the solution or the silver lining yet. This is only part one. This is one-third of the way to healing. I haven’t figured out the “Tips for Being Majorly Bummed Out and Injured.” But I have found “Tips for Dealing with Your Majorly Bummed Out, Injured Friend/Hiking Buddy/Training Partner”:
--Go into that dark, uncomfortable zone. Depression sucks, no way around it, but it sucks more if your friends are too uncomfortable to face it with you.
--As trainers and coaches, we owe it to our athletes and clients to understand the emotional complexities of a sports injury. We don’t get to just check out until they appear on our training schedules again.
--Talk about non-training things. Go get manicures, go on a brewery tour, laugh at the messages you got on Tinder. You can talk about how great your run was with someone else.
--Stop talking about weight. You should stop anyways, but really stop now.
--Don’t ask how recovering from the injury is coming along. Although you’re being supportive and only wanting the best, each day becomes a PR tour when you have to answer the same question. When it’s better, they’ll be singing it loudly.
--Remind your friend why they’re valuable outside of their athletics, fitness, and body. Unfortunately, this emotional display is also uncomfortable for many of us. So even if you have to pull a cheesy clip off Pinterest and put it on their Facebook, remind them.
Depression isn’t limited to the more grave life events. There’s no shortage of athletes who have struggled with depression after an injury. Unfortunately the stories don’t have positive endings for everyone. If you or a friend is struggling with depression after an injury, do not be ashamed to speak up and seek help. The runner’s highs want to meet you on the trail again.