Physical injury and mental health: My story

Physical injury and mental health: My story

By Taura Vigers

In early June of 2022 my physician put me on medical leave for burnout. Nearly 2 decades of taking on too much at work in an effort to climb the corporate ladder, marital strain, and being the only child of aging parents had finally taken a toll on my mental and physical health. When the pandemic shutdown began in early 2020, I found a huge release from daily stresses in being exceptionally physically active. At 48, I began mountain biking at bike parks, was running 30-40k per week, wake surfing in the summer and skiing in the winter. I was at the peak of physical fitness and feeling on top of the world, in full denial of my mental state. In April of 2022, with no preparation, I hiked a 250km trail down the Portugal coast with 2 friends. I felt I could take on anything – until I crashed.

I spent nearly a year in a fog of memory challenges, chronic headaches, social anxiety, an inability to read or even watch TV. But I could exercise. More extreme sports were off the cards – my nervous system could not handle the mountain biking. But I could run, hike, and maintain my yoga practice. They were my sanity in what I felt like an insane mind. In January 2023 I began skiing – not the extreme steeps and deeps I was accustomed to, but fun cruisers. I started to feel optimistic about challenging myself physically in an effort to help my mental health.

I had dabbled in snowboarding in the past, and so to spice up the cruisers and feel like I was capable of learning something again I spent the last week of the season on a snowboard. Just cruising in the spring slush and trying to laugh at myself. Feeling positive for first time in a year that I was capable of learning something new. Feeling a break in the mental fog.

And then, on March 31, I broke my ankle. Badly. The profanity that came out of my mouth on the ski hill was horrific – not because of the pain, but because I knew what I had done, and I knew my life was going to be very different for a while. My first break, ever. My first surgery, ever. I was terrified. Living in a ski town I knew loads of people who had done the same. Surgical plates and screws were needed to put my tibia and fibula back together. The road of physical recovery is at best 6 but on average 9 months with intense physical therapy. Absolute non weight bearing on crutches for the first 3 months. I wasn’t going anywhere but the couch for a long time.

The mental challenges that come along with a major injury can be overwhelming, and frankly, downright depressing. Especially if exercise is your sanity.

Here are some of my learnings from the past 10 months –

  1. Remember that resting is part of the healing process. This may seem intuitive to most people, but to me it seemed so wasteful, unproductive, boring. I became astounded at how much sleep I actually needed, even after I weaned off the pain killers. I have never been a ‘good’ sleeper, and yet for the first 6 weeks or so I could sleep 12 hours a day easily. If I wasn’t listening to my mind before that I needed a break, my body wasn’t going to let me get away with it this time.

  2. Focus on things you can control. I wanted to heal as fast as possible, so ate clean and took bone building supplements along with my regular vitamins. I was allowed to take my foot out of the boot while sitting with it raised and flex it a bit – I did that as much as I could stand. I put myself on a physio’s list 2 months ahead of schedule so I could start the first day I was cleared to do so. Once I started physio the therapist encouraged my to work my upper body with home weights both for my mental and physical health. Building muscle in other areas helps your body heal in other areas. I kept my daily routine (aside from the extra sleep!). I still showered on my stool everyday, stretched, made myself batch meals (you’d be amazed how hard it is to cook on crutches!), and resisted any temptation to drink alcohol.

  3. Practice mindfulness. Staying in the moment can help calm worries about the future. “What if I can’t do the things I used to?”, “What if I need another surgery for hardware complications” are some of the demons that ran through my mind. Using meditation apps and podcasts with a meditation focus really helped keep me focused on healing and doing what I needed to do at that moment. This helps keeps the spiral of anxiety and subsequent depression under control.

  4. Keep track of your progress. Note every and all improvements in your physical and mental well-being. This becomes so motivational when those tough days come - days where you feel like your going backwards rather than forwards. I kept track of range of motion measurements weekly, along with increased sets and types of exercises as time progressed. So even if I struggled with the current week I knew I was still ahead of where I was 3 weeks ago. This helps keep sights on the end goal as well as knowing that it won’t always be this bad!

  5. Physical and if needed, mental therapy. If you can, work with a physical therapist. They will not only guide you but help keep you motivated and on track. Just as important as your physical improvement is taking care of your mental health during the healing process. If you’re struggling, share with those close to you, if needed engage a professional. Physical injuries are a funny thing – people always will ask ‘how is your ankle doing’, but rarely if every will they ask ‘how is your mental health during this time?’. If you are able to chat with people who have gone through a similar injury even better. They can help set realistic expectations, and you can see for yourself that they came through the other side ok.

  6. Stay connected and social! Make coffee dates, use online tools such as Facetime. This was my life saver. As I am in a small town it was easy for me to have someone around everyday for a cup of tea. If friends and family are further away, Facetime makes things so easy. ‘Seeing’ someone is so much more of an uplifting conversation than a text!
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