This post is featured on behalf of Stacey White.


We like to think of physical and mental health as two things that don’t really overlap. Breaking a leg is totally different from being depressed.

But it turns out that there are many links between the two. For instance, people who suffer from physically debilitating conditions, like fibromyalgia, angina or chronic bowel conditions are much more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Many experts believe that the two are related.

What’s not so clear is the relationship between physical injury and mental health, but there is one, and it can be surprisingly difficult to manage.

Physical Injuries Are Terrifying And Can Lead To Long-Term Trauma

Physical injuries are terrifying. Dr Debbie Roche at the Hospital for Special Surgery says that injuries remind people of their mortality, something that a lot of people have never faced before. When an injury is serious, patients suddenly realize that they can no longer assume that they will be non-disabled forever. Even if they get better, it’s an existential wake-up call that life is finite, and what they do with their time is important.

Many of her patients are young. She frequently sees people with serious sports injuries who are only in their twenties or thirties. It’s not just a case of putting the injured limb in a cast. She also has to deal with many of the mental health issues that come with it. Anxiety, fear, dread, anguish and depression are all common side effects.

Then There’s Sadness…

Another issue, Roche says, is the sadness that so often accompanies injury, whether it’s on the sports field, from military service, or on the road. Some people, she says, find it hard to accept that injuries happen and that they can’t just carry on with their lives as usual. Not only is the pain uncomfortable, but the loss of time creates a fear of missing out. The affected person can’t go out with their friends as much, they can’t work, and it gets in the way of conducting intimate relationships.

It’s also saddening to realize that you have decreased physical capacity. Mothers are often particularly severely affected because they believe that they will not be able to look after their children. Single mothers who lack support also find it difficult to cope. For moms, it’s not so much about the injury itself, but their inability to serve the people around them. They have responsibilities, but they feel like they can’t honor them.

Millennials Hate Being Injured

Roche believes that millennials are particularly hurt when it comes to injury. While many will seek personal injury lawyers, problems arise mainly because of the culture. Weakness and vulnerability, Roche says, make getting injured particularly hard for this group. There’s a sense among millennials that they have to be eternally invincible, able to withstand whatever life throws at them. They also believe that if they get hurt, they have to deal with the issue by themselves.

This fear of showing weakness comes from the pressures that many young people experienced in their early lives. They were told that they could have everything they wanted from life: a successful career, excellent health, and a loving partner, but the reality for many is the opposite. Physical injury has a knack of bringing these feelings of sadness and disappointment to the fore.

Money Worries And Being Out Of Work

If you sell your labor to an employer, you have a vested interest in keeping your body fit and healthy. But when an injury happens, it can make it impossible to work, even if you have a desk job.

Being out of work isn’t good at the best of times, but it’s much worse when you’re injured, and you have to keep paying your bills. Long hours sitting in a chair or lying in bed doesn’t help to improve mental health, and can often make it worse.

Roche recommends reframing your situation in a way that makes you feel powerful, not powerless. She says that it’s perfectly reasonable to feel down, but that an injury is also a chance to reevaluate what you’re doing with your life.

What Can Be Done About It?

Dealing with the mental health consequences of injury is tricky. Part of the problem is that mental health issues can take a variety of forms. Somebody who stubs and breaks their toe is going to have very different psychological needs to a person who has been shot.

Roche says that the best thing to do is to speak to a therapist who can offer advice on the best treatment route. Therapists specialise in different areas of psychological need with some techniques being more useful than others. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be more useful for people whose issues stem from adulthood, whereas psychotherapy may be better for those whose fears arise from a childhood experience.

Each person’s road to recovery is different. For some people, the sadness lasts just a couple of weeks while they adjust to their new condition. For others, mental health issues can be longer lasting. Anxiety, when activated for too long, can become permanently switched “on,” and it can become difficult to switch it off again.

Injury, for some people, can go beyond merely a mental health issue and begin to form their identity. Athletes, for instance, are very concerned about the state of their bodies because they rely on them directly to make money. Moreover, they need them to perform because they are a central part of their identity. The injured athlete is an unhappy one. Athletes get used to the pain – that’s rarely the central issue. The issue is their sense of self-worth. Without their bodies, they cannot function or add value to other people’s lives. They sink into despair.

It’s a good idea for anybody experiencing injury to speak to a physical therapist. But for athletes, it’s essential. Physical therapy can provide a prognosis for recovery. It can also determine whether a recovery is possible, or whether the athlete will have to choose some other direction in their lives.

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