So I’m Injured, Now What? (III) – Mental and Emotional Challenges
In addition to physical pain, the mental and emotional aspect of climbing injuries should not be downplayed or underestimated, especially severe injuries that put you squarely on the sidelines for a lengthy period of time and/or call into question your body’s ability to handle what you want it to be able to do (climb!). It’s common to feel depressed, irritable and unmotivated when injured, and it’s also common to feel guilty about having such feelings, e.g. “I don’t have a right to feel depressed; I still have all the normal luxuries of my Western life so I’m just being selfish by having these types of feelings at all.”
While we undoubtedly enjoy an incredible quality of life compared to many other places in the world, one that allows us the indulgence of filling our free time with things like rock climbing, this doesn’t take away from the fact that a sudden decrease in physical activity – and especially one that’s so engaging and consuming as rock climbing (or any similarly pursued athletic endeavor) – can lead to a cascade of mental-emotional impacts, suffered as a result from the abrupt removal of the regular activity level and the consequent mental-physical-emotional disruption. In other words, it’s not just you being a selfish person for feeling badly that you can’t climb; it’s your whole being reacting to the situation – and you feel it in your mind as well as your body. And if you’re going to feel guilty that not climbing is making you feel depressed or down or grumpy, you might as well just feel guilty all the time about climbing even while you can climb, too – the same rules apply; it’s a privilege to have the freedom to climb at all.
So don’t feel badly that you feel badly; this is unproductive and will only make the feeling bad even worse. Instead, try to acknowledge your feelings and accept them as valid, and do what you can to mitigate symptoms and find joy in the process of injury recovery. How to do this will vary for each individual. For some injured folks, being around other climbers or hearing about rock climbing only compounds the sense of depression at not being able to participate (sort of like hanging out and drinking water while all your friends are getting hammered to hilarity on the hard stuff); for others, being around climbing and climbing conversion gets them outside of themselves and helps remind them of what they’re working back toward being able to do.
Another great perspective to keep is to remember that all is not lost – that you will not “lose everything,” which is a common fear for injured climbers/athletes. Depending on how long you’re out, you will lose some fitness, sure, and if you’re out for a substantial time with no climbing-relevant physical activity (a month or longer), you may experience some strength loss, too. But, it takes the body much longer to lose strength gains than it does to make them; the body is reluctant to let go of such hard-fought gains (strength gains take a long time to manifest when compared to endurance gains). Also, once you’ve worn a path into your body once, it’s way easier to get back to that level again than it was to get there in the first place; the body “remembers” where you were (not exactly correct, but a good image/way to think about it). And your brain does remember how to climb, though it may feel rusty at first when you get back. You will not be starting at square one, and you’re likely to get back to where you were before the injury much faster than you might expect.
Staying physically active, as mentioned in the previous entry, is a great way to help decrease withdrawal-from-climbing and concern-about-future-climbing symptoms, as is a proactive rehabilitation/climbing-training plan that is workable without causing further harm while you’re injured. Another coping mechanism is to delve into an entirely different activity (physical or not) that you normally don’t have time to do while you’re climbing but that you’re interested in, like taking an online or community course on a topic of interest, volunteering for a worthy cause, and so forth. Keeping yourself occupied instead of spending your normal climbing/training time perseverating on what you can’t do and feeling sorry for yourself can go a long way to keeping your spirits relatively high, which in turn can actually influence the pace/outcome of your injury in terms of healing time.
“Emerging and converging evidence support the perspective that the mind and body are inextricably linked and function in an integrative manner to mediate the manifestation of maladaptive autonomic nervous system responses (ANS) that can result in symptoms and eventual illness, and in the realm of sports, drive competitive anxiety, reduced attention, diminished motor control and consequent poor performance. … Identifiable mind-body processes and interactions that have been harnessed therapeutically to ameliorate symptoms and promote well-being have also been shown to enhance self-regulation and improve performance.” (from Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology: A Practitioner’s Manual, by Roland A. Carlstedt, Ph.D.)
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!