How To Overcome A Serious Injury

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: January 29, 2021

Whether you play a sport or just like to be active, a serious injury is a huge setback. And the road to recovery can leave you feeling depressed.

As a fitness athlete, I suffered a devastating injury of my own. So I know first hand how hard it can be, both physically and mentally.

That’s why I’m going to share how I got through my experience. Hopefully, these 9 steps will help you overcome your injury. Or whatever adversity you face.

How To Overcome Serious Injury

The Beginning Of A Journey To Recovery

Back in January of 2018, it was the offseason for my bodybuilding competitions. After 3 months of bulking, I was 200 lbs with 13-14% body fat. About as strong and muscular as I’d ever been.

That snowy Tuesday night, the bench press was going up easy. So I decided to throw on 335 lbs, even though I didn’t have a spotter. I thought “I got this” as I laid under the bar and lifted it off the rack. That’s when it happened.

The instant I bent my elbows, my right arm gave way. As the weight came down, I felt the pop of individual fibers tearing. Like the filaments of a steel cable snapping before the whole thing breaks.

Somehow, in one quick motion, I was able to dump the weight and sit up without being crushed. As the bar hit the floor, I did too – falling to my knees in shock. Several people rushed to help.

At that moment, I remember thinking, “This is a serious injury, everything is going to be different now.” I know immediately it was a torn pectoral muscle. And that marked the beginning of a long road to recovery.

Road To Recovery

5 Stages Of Mental Recovery

Suffering a major injury can be a life-changing experience. And coping with big changes is an emotional journey.

While I don’t consider myself an overly reactive person, I went on a rollercoaster of feelings after my injury. Everything from fear to anger to depression – and back again.

But it turns out, this is a perfectly natural part of coping with change. In fact, there’s something called the Kubler-Ross change curve that describes the emotional process people go through when dealing with change.

It starts with shock and denial before descending into anger and blame. All this negativity leads to a low point of depression. Eventually, you come around and accept the situation. Only then can you move on.

Stages Of Coping With Change And Overcoming Injury

1. Face The Facts

At the onset of an injury, your initial reaction is shock and denial. With an unexpected change, we often react with disbelief. Sometimes even looking for evidence that it isn’t true.

In my case, I didn’t want to believe it was as bad as it felt. I made small circles with my right arm while feeling my chest. “Maybe it’s only a partial tear”, I told myself.

But we can’t let ourselves stay in this avoidance mode for too long. The best thing you can do is face your injury head-on.

Within 20 minutes, I was sitting in Urgent Care ready to face the music. Although it took a while to get a definitive diagnosis (I’ll get into this more in step 6).

2. There’s No Use Getting Angry Over The Past

Once the initial shock wears off and you come to the realization that you’re injured, anger usually takes over. You feel upset about the bad hand you’ve been dealt. It doesn’t seem fair.

This anger can turn to blame as you look for ways to assign responsibility and make sense of it all. Initially, you might blame other people or even things. I found myself blaming the bench for being too narrow and unstable.

Eventually, that blame turns inward. For instance, I started to blame myself for not recognizing the clear signs of overtraining, for not having a spotter, and for letting my ego take over.

This coulda-woulda-shoulda syndrome is normal. But I had to realize that pointing fingers or trying to relive the past doesn’t change anything. And it’s certainly not productive.

3. Ride Out The Storm Of Emotions

The confusion and doubt of stage 2 lead to depression. Sort of like a downpour of negative emotions such as fear, sadness, and regret. Which drag down your mood and energy, causing a lack of motivation.

As undesirable as the depression stage sounds, it’s actually a necessary part of the process. You have to let these feelings rain down on you before you can see clearly again.

Stages Of Overcoming Injury Meme

At the risk of sounding dramatic, it’s a bit of an existential crisis. You may have to rethink your values and your purpose.

For me, it was thoughts like “what if this injury leaves me physically deformed?” Or “what if I can’t do what I’m passionate about anymore?”

These are tough ideas to wrestle with. And you may feel like you’ve lost all control.

But ultimately, you have the control to make one critical decision. You can choose to accept the situation.

4. Learn To Let Go

To clarify, acceptance doesn’t have to be welcoming the change or injury with open arms. It’s just that you stop resisting it and say “it is what it is”.

Like being caught in the rain and realizing you can’t get any more soaked so you might as well jump in some puddles. Once you do this, you’ll feel your mood and energy lift a little.

At the same time, you’ll let go of the things you can’t change. While beginning to focus on the things you can change.

5. Get Busy Solving New Problems

Now it’s time to get to work. Setting new goals and working towards them will help you advance from acceptance to improvement.

The first thing you should do is adjust your priorities to align with your new reality. Maybe you can’t work or do your hobby, but you can use that time for other things.

After my injury, I couldn’t work out for a while. So I made other parts of my life a higher priority. I focused more on my new business and I started coaching local fitness athletes at the gym.

At this point, I had stumbled my way through all 5 steps of the mental change process. It wasn’t pretty, but I feel like I was able to manage it well enough to shorten the duration and make it less difficult overall.

Overcoming Injury - Managed Recovery

For starters, I got through the shock/denial phase quickly by facing my injury head-on. I did fall pretty hard into anger, confusion, and depression. But I took my injury for what it was. And throughout the process, I tried to focus on what I could control.

In addition, I put a lot of my energy into my rehabilitation and physical recovery.

4 Aspects of Physical Recovery

As if the mental aspects weren’t hard enough, you also have to endure the physical aspects of recovery.

Depending on your injury, you may need surgery or some other serious medical treatment. Then you still have to get through the rehab and recovery.

6. Be Your Own Health Advocate

Before you even begin treatment, it’s important to be your own health advocate. What I mean is, sometimes you have to take responsibility for your health because other people might not.

Don’t get me wrong, the medical field is full of knowledgeable and experienced professionals who care about the well being of their patients. But, the health care system doesn’t always allow them to provide the best care.

Instead, the system is set up for wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, here’s your prescription. At least that’s how it is in the Land of the Free.

Case in point, the Urgent Care staff rushed through my diagnosis and concluded it was “probably a strain or partial tear”. They wrote me a prescription for opioids and were going to send me home with no follow-up for 8-10 days.

So I had to be my own health advocate. First, I declined the prescription. Then I went full Karen and made them call an off-duty MD and an orthopedic surgeon at home to arrange an MRI to properly diagnose my injury. 😂

And I’m glad I did because the MRI showed that I tore the muscle and tendon completely off the bone! An injury like that requires timely surgery or I would have permanently lost strength and range of motion in my right arm.

Stages Of Overcoming Injury Meme

It’s difficult for the untrained eye to see anything, but apparently, the MRI shows a full rupture when the original diagnosis was a “possible” tear.

7. Research Your Treatment Options

Once you know the extent of your injury, it’s time to figure out the best course of action to treat it. And that may take a little effort.

For instance, in my 20’s, I had a cancerous tumor removed. But there were still trace amounts of cancer in my lymph nodes. So I bounced around from specialist to specialist.

One doctor suggested chemotherapy, another radiation. It was the 3rd doctor who took the time to explain the statistics and weigh the risks and rewards of various options.

Together, we decided I would undergo medical surveillance and only get treatment if necessary. In doing so, I avoided life-altering radiation and chemo. And I’m still cancer-free.

The point is, I was prepared to lose my hair and suffer terrible side effects just to be done with cancer and move on. But, by being forced to consider multiple options, I finally found the plan that was best for me.

So, even if it’s uncomfortable, take your time and find the right doctor with the best treatment plan.

The same was true with my pectoral surgery. I found the best doctor in my area and met with him to discuss the surgery. A good doctor and a solid plan will make you feel much more confident in your recovery.

Stages Of Overcoming Injury Meme

Surgery was a low point in terms of pain and immobility. But mentally, I had accepted my journey and was committed to recovery.

8. Make Rehab Your Sport

Earlier we talked about adjusting priorities around your new circumstances. One of those priorities needs to be your recovery and rehabilitation.

Whatever job, sport, or hobby you’re sidelined from, take that energy and apply it to your physical therapy. Make it a goal to meet or exceed the doctor’s timeline for your recovery.

When I was rehabbing my pec, I did everything the physical therapist told me to do. On top of that, I exercised the rest of my body to keep my spirits up and get my blood flowing.

Just make sure your activities won’t interfere with your recovery or aggravate your injury. For example, I started with light workouts for my legs. But I didn’t push it with my upper body until the doctor cleared me to do so.

Stages Of Overcoming Injury Meme

I believe that extra effort really helped with my recovery. As a result, I ditched the sling and regained full range of motion a month ahead of schedule.

9. Set Realistic Expectations & Be Patient

Of course, you also have to be realistic in your expectations. Because if you think you’re just going to get back to normal right away, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

For me, it took 5 months before I was able to get back under the bench press bar. And it could take years to build back the strength and muscle I lost.

I assure you, there will be times where progress is frustratingly slow. And you may see or hear of other people who have come back from the same injury faster. But you need to put blinders on and focus on what’s possible for you.

Just like in fitness, stick to your plan and trust the process. Results come to those who work hard consistently.

Key Takeaways

  • Recovery is a curve, not a straight line
  • Negative emotions are part of the process, acknowledge them and let them go
  • The sooner you accept your injury, the sooner you can improve
  • Take ownership of your health, but listen to the experts
  • Invest in your recovery and reap the rewards in the long run

When dealing with your own injury or adversity, it’s important to realize that the recovery process is not a straight line. It’s a curve that we all must follow.

Knowing this, you can recognize your emotions and understand that they are part of the process. Then let go of those emotions more easily so you can accept the situation and move forward.

Once you get your mind right, you can take on the physical aspects of recovery with more energy. Always remember to look out for your best interests and do your own research. But listen to your doctors and physical therapists as well.

Lastly, be patient and vigilant even when the process doesn’t move as fast as you’d like. After the experience is over, you’ll be stronger for having made it through.

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