Dealing with a sports injury is tough.
In 2014, more than 8.6 million Americans were injured playing the sports they love. And this number is rising. While more of us embrace a healthier, more active lifestyle, more of us are going to get injured.
But what happens when that injury stops you from doing the sport you love?
Being separated from our teammates as they move on, a break in the routine we may have been living for years, and not being able to play the sport we enjoy—all these factors contribute to mental trauma.
Louise Jones—renowned U.K. sports psychologist—says there is “a psychological component to every injury.” Based at the Sport Wales Institute, Jones has coached countless athletes in the psychology of sports—including Olympic snowboarding great Jenny Jones. In an interview earlier this year, she explained that a long-term injury can impact our self-confidence and sense of personal identity. This is about more than how sports keep us healthy and fit, physically.
In this article, we break down the impact sports-related injuries have on mental health. We explore why it’s so common to deal with mental trauma after being injured in our favorite game. Finally, we’ll give you some advice on how to cope with the mental fallout of sporting injuries.
Sports Injuries And Mental Trauma
Whether you’re a professional sportsman or just jogging daily for your own wellbeing, you can still experience mental trauma when you experience serious sports-related injuries.
Clinical psychologist Shawna M. Freshwater, PhD, explains that the injury we incur can lead to an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. We can feel isolated, have difficulty sleeping, or lack motivation.
According to Freshwater, the more our personal identity is linked to our physical ability, the greater an impact our injury has on our psychological, cognitive, and emotional health.
It makes sense that the more we stand to lose from an injury, the more it will affect our mental health. It should also make sense then, that we invest more in understanding the impact, right?
Effects Of Trauma On The Mind
In this section we’re going to explore the immediate, short-term, and long-term psychological trauma of a sports-related injury. Everyone is different, but by understanding what is happening within your brain and body, we can start to identify the pressure points that could cause us problems later.
The immediate effects
Straight away, your fight or flight response kicks in. Immediately following an injury, many people are surprised at their behavior and intense emotional response.
Your body produces a chemical reaction which can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Loss of appetite
- Profuse sweating
- Rapid breathing
- Heightened hearing and vision.
- Extreme emotional response—tears, anger, fear.
Your body is producing chemicals and hormones to get you ready to escape imminent danger. What we refer to as an adrenaline rush is actually our adrenal glands pumping cortisol into our system. If you were a car, your brain has just put you into high gear.
The short-term effects
Over the next few hours or days, your body eases off the accelerator. With the immediate threat gone, a healthy chemical response should lead to your body returning to normal. Blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate should regulate.
When the imminent danger is gone, we often feel sadness, guilt, anger, or shock. This is a normal emotional response as we work through our experiences. As these feelings ease, the cortisol levels in our body return to normal.
If these feelings persist, our body continues to produce cortisol. In basic terms, this is its response to your brain telling it the threat is still there. It can lead to more serious issues, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The long-term effects
If your injury was a sprained ankle or some minor bruising, you’re likely to recover with a little self-care or an ice pack. You’re not likely to experience long-term effects, unless there is an underlying issue already.
If your injury was more serious, understanding and addressing long-term issues is pivotal in a successful recovery.
People who experience PTSD may experience anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and have difficulty concentrating. If PTSD remains untreated, you may find that you deal with anger, aggression, depression, and substance abuse.
While many associate PTSD with soldiers and first responders, it’s important not to dismiss it as a genuine pressure point for athletes.
Researchers at the University of Texas recently studied college-aged athletes following injury. Just under 26% showed difficulty sleeping following an injury. 19% reported they avoided similar situations, and 17% stated they had “trouble keeping thoughts of the incident” out of their heads. Flashbacks, nightmares, and emotional detachment rounded out the list of symptoms.
The most effective treatments for long-term PTSD sufferers are behavioral or cognitive therapy and talking with a clinical psychologist.
To be clear, depression is not the same as ‘feeling down.’ People suffering from depression can experience anxiety, negativity, helplessness, and hopelessness. Without intervention, these symptoms don’t go away.
Clinical depression can be compounded by feelings of isolation, anger, and frustration that come with a sports injury.
People who already suffer from an underlying mental health issue can also be triggered by the loss of self-identity or the impact an injury has on how they see themselves.
If a sports injury affects your ability to work, causes financial worry, or makes it difficult for you to carry out day to day activities, it becomes even more important to manage your mental health.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling can be effective for depression. You might also be prescribed anti-depressants or psychotherapy to support your recovery.
A concussion is a brain injury. Experts estimate that around 3.8 million concussions are treated in the U.S. each year. Scarier, as many as 50% may go unreported. Concussions are most common in rugby, basketball, American football, and hockey.
If you are at risk of a concussion, it is important to be treated in the immediate- and short-term. Problematic psychological issues can arise from a concussion, with some patients unable to ‘shake’ the feeling of sadness and irritability that plagues them.
Concussion has also been linked to neurodegenerative diseases—like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—in professional athletes.
Many athletes—professional and amateur—worry that a concussion will ruin their lives. The level of stress this puts on a person can also contribute to their anxiety level.
Why Managing Sports Anxiety Is Important
Managing sports anxiety contributes to improved mental health, quicker emotional recovery, and can aid our reintegration into our sport.
Although there are a lot of components to consider, the key is to understand your injury and your recovery plan. Louise Jones suggests:
- Being clear on your injury and diagnosis
- Committing to the rehabilitation process
- Being patient—many athletes who attempt to rush the rehab process injure themselves further
- Sticking to your normal routine as much as possible
- Involving yourself in team activities (for team sports)
- Setting short-term goals around your recovery
- Accepting that you won’t feel positive all the time and that this is ok.
- Building a strong support network
Coping with a sports-related injury can be scary.
If you’ve been a runner all your life, a torn Achilles’ tendon can impact how you view yourself, and how you align with the world around you.
It’s important to learn how to manage the mental stressors you’re faced with, following injury. Hopefully, the info you’ve learned here helps you understand the effects of trauma on mental health. Our goal is to empower you to cope better with anxiety and the long-term mental effects of your injury.
Understanding your brain and body are the keys to a strong long-term recovery.