How to Stay Mentally Healthy While Recovering From Physical Injury

August 18, 2016 12:20 am / Category: Physical Therapy , Wellness


We all have our own ways of coping with grief, especially when it comes to injury. Attitude can have a huge effect on your perception, your outlook and your overall motivation to get better. Most of us are familiar with Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, however many people don’t realize how applicable it is to the injury, rehabilitation and recovery process.

While not everyone experiences all of these stages, each patient certainly goes through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and/or acceptance at some point when recovering from a big injury. As a physical therapist, I’ve seen firsthand how injury rehab can be just as tough mentally as it is physically, and sometimes even more so. By recognizing and understanding how the stages of grief manifest during your recovery after an injury or surgery, you can take control of your mental well-being and make physical therapy less stressful and more successful.

Stage 1: DenialDenial

What it looks like:
  • You deny the severity of your injury by telling yourself, “It’s not that bad.”
  • You try to seek out the “quick fix” to get back to what you love doing as soon as possible.
  • You avoid going to the doctor because you don’t want to hear bad news, or you seek second and third opinions because the doctors are telling you something you don’t want to hear.
  • You assure yourself you can fix the pain on your own, saying, “I got this, I don’t need any help, just have to rest for a few days…”

What you can do:

Stop wasting time and get a diagnosis. If an injury does not get better in one month, stop putting off your recovery and go get it checked out by your physician or physical therapist. Getting a diagnosis is the first crucial step in moving forward with your recovery and feeling better, so why wait?

Stage 2: Angeranger

What it looks like:
  • You’re angry that you can’t play your sport or do your normal activities because of pain.
  • You may need help doing everyday tasks, and you’re upset that you’ve lost your independence.
  • You’re a frustrated athlete and you think, “This is taking too long, I have a big game next week!”

What you can do:

Stay positive. Lean on your support system—between your family and friends, your doctor, your physical therapist and your physical therapy aides, you are not alone. I constantly remind my patients, “I know this is difficult, but I’m in this with you. We are here to help, we are here to listen, and we are here to get you there.” When you’re angry and frustrated, avoid being impulsive, giving up on the rehab process, or comparing yourself to other patients who may be progressing quicker than you. Trust the process, and trust your physical therapist.

Stage 3: Bargainingbargaining

Typically, athletes are not the most patient patients, as they often experience pressure from coaches, parents, teammates, and themselves to return to playing as quickly as possible.

What it looks like:
  • Obsessively asking, “When can I go back to playing?”
  • Looking for the quick fix, cutting corners, or simply pushing through pain
  • Asking “What else can I do to recover faster?” instead of taking the time to focus on a full, complete recovery

Getting stuck in the bargaining stage can be detrimental to a successful recovery because you will either prolong or cut the process short, ultimately resulting in re-injury, chronic pain, or even bigger issues in the future.

What you can do:

Be patient! Establish a cohesive plan with your physical therapist that consists of smaller, achievable goals as steps towards your ultimate goal. It’s also important to be consistent with your physical therapy program and at-home exercises to continue progressing forward.

Stage 4: Depressiondepression

While recovering from an injury or surgery, patients may fall into some level of depression as they face new challenges, such as losing your independence after surgery or losing your sense of self if you’re an athlete.

What it looks like:
  • Feeling helpless.
  • Feeling hopeless or doubtful; thoughts of, “Will this ever get better?”
  • Fear of letting your parents, coaches, or team down.
  • Experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or being afraid of re-injury.

What you can do:
  • Ask questions. Be an active participant in your recovery by educating yourself to better understand your injury and the specific recovery process for that injury. This will empower you, as well as help you be patient and trust in the process. Understanding the “What, Why, and How”s is key to compliance and success.
  • Ask for help. It’s imperative to recognize these thoughts or feelings of depressoin, and to address them with your physical therapist and/or someone you trust.


Stage 5: Acceptanceacceptance

What it looks like:

No two injuries or recoveries are identical, as every person is different and there are many factors that influence recovery process. Taking responsibility of your recovery is empowering and motivating.

  • Coming to terms with where your body is currently during your recovery.
  • No longer comparing yourself to others.
  • Accepting of where you are at in your own process and focused on moving forward.

What you can do:

Take charge of your recovery. Consistency is the key to success; progress in injury rehabilitation requires consistency with regular physical therapy sessions in addition to doing your exercises independently at home. Take advantage of the tools available to you to manage your recovery daily, and you’ll be back to your regular activity before you know it.

Staying Healthy Mentally While Recovering Physically

Suffering from an injury can have a negative impact on your attitude and mental health, which left unchecked can effect your performance and success when trying to heal. Being honest with yourself and maintaining a positive attitude after any injury or surgery will greatly increase your chance of a full, successful recovery and ultimately help you grow as an individual.

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StaffHeadshot-Ashley2Ashley Heller, MPT is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. She received her Masters of Physical Therapy degree at California State University, Long Beach and is passionate about working with patients with shoulder, knee and ankle injuries. With background in orthopedic-related injuries and post-operative rehabilitation, Ashley believes that the combination of manual therapy and personalized therapeutic exercise program is vital to recovery. Known as the Water Sports PT, Ashley says her goal is to help her patients better understand their injuries and the plan for their road to recovery.

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