Feature: Emotional Recovery after Injury

Depression After Injury: The Road to Emotional Recovery for Athletes

The following article was published on TheFix.com . The Fix has been one of our featured resources on Crossing the Line since we started. This article focuses on the challenges many athletes face when sidelined through injury.

Athletes may face anxiety, depression, eating disorders or substance abuse when they are unwillingly sidelined due to an injury. Injuries are an unfortunate side effect of sports. Most people, however, only think about the physical rehabilitation and don’t consider the emotional consequences of being sidelined.

For some athletes, especially those who are young, being injured can trigger emotional or mental health issues. It can also unmask repressed anxieties or fears that sports have enabled the athlete to control. Once the participant is out of the game, they may be unable to cope.

Athletes may face anxiety, depression, eating disorders or substance abuse when they are unwillingly sidelined due to an injury. It’s normal for those injured to have a range of emotions and side effects, from sadness to exhaustion, but when these issues don’t resolve themselves over time, it may be a warning to coaches, friends and family members that the athlete is suffering from depression.

For athletes who have been injured, paying attention to signs of depression may mean curtailing worsening symptoms.

Watch for Things to Get Worse

Though some minor depression and frustration are normal after an injury, there are other symptoms you can watch out for if you suspect you or a loved one are struggling with depression as a result of injury.

Restrictive Eating

When injured athletes decide to sustain on a much lower caloric diet because they feel they can’t burn off the excess calories, or, worse, that without exercise they don’t “deserve” to eat, it’s time to pay attention. Healthy eating should always be encouraged, but treating food as if it is something to be earned through exercise is problematic. Though women are most at risk, there are plenty of men who suffer from eating disorders.

Eating disorders in athletes are more common in individual, rather than team, sports. They are also more common in sports that focus on appearance – and many of these two commonalities overlap in sports such as:

• Gymnastics

• Diving

• Swimming

• Bodybuilding

• Figure skating

If people in these at-risk sports have a coach or trainer who emphasizes success and performance instead of the athlete as an individual, they are at an even higher risk.

Excessive Sadness

The stories of athletes who, after sitting out due to an injury, find themselves despondent, are many. After Olympic skier Picabo Street’s leg and knee injury, she admitted to battling serious depression.

Many such athletes, for whom their sport is their identity, don’t know what to do when faced with life — even temporarily — without their game. While coaches and loved ones should expect some sadness, they should watch for signs of worsening depression and despondency. Be sure to keep lines of communication open during the athlete’s recovery, include them in games and practices in some capacity, and be alert of signs of hopelessness.

Sleeping or Drug Abuse Problems

Without the extreme physical push, many athletes may find sleep to be an issue after an injury. This, unfortunately, can lead some to rely on drugs. Athletes may take medication to help them sleep, knowing they will soon be playing again and have no need for the pills. For others, drugs can become a dependency that they are unable to shake.

If these people find themselves having trouble waking in the morning and being motivated to engage in other daily life activities, it may be a warning sign their injury may be causing mental problems as well as physical ones.

Help for Those Who Have Been Injured

You don’t have to be a pro-ball player to experience serious depression after an injury. Regardless of your sport or even your level of play, an injury can potentially wreck more than your game. Whether you are hurt or you are concerned about someone else, recognizing that it’s normal to feel sad is important to your emotional health.

If depression is creeping in, acknowledge it or help your loved one acknowledge it, and resolve to make choices that can help alleviate some of these crippling symptoms. Be sure to:

Refocus Your Mind for Faster Recovery

Because athletes have often connected their sports so strongly with their identity, pulling out of a funk or full-blown depression after an injury can be challenging. Refocusing your mind is a huge component to recovery. It’s crucial to remember that while you are recovering physically, your mind — which plays a role in how our body perceives pain and how we recover — should also be given some time to heal.

Eat Healthy

A cycle of poor eating choices can exacerbate feelings of lethargy, decreasing an athlete’s sense of self-worth. Foods that are rich in nutrients actually help fight those feelings. Making good food choices also alleviates the guilt some athletes feel when they aren’t working out. Recent studies prove that eating healthier makes you happier — it’s a great idea for athletes, evening walkers and those looking to find the time to squeeze in a workout.

Maintain a Regular Sleep Cycle

People who can’t sleep often push themselves to stay up later so that they can experience enough exhaustion to hit the hay hard. Staying up late may mean sleeping in longer, making it harder to sleep at night. It’s a nasty cycle, so even when you stay up late, try and wake up at a reasonable hour. For sleep struggles, magnesium can be an athlete’s best friend — it helps those who take it relax more easily into sleep and decreases cramps.

Find Other Ways to Compete

If a driving factor of why you are in sports is competition, host a game night. If your knees are too beat up from too many years of tennis, try a round of golf. If you need to exercise to help relax your mind, consider swimming until you’ve healed. Believing that the sport you’ve been benched from is your only relief is why many people get depressed to begin with. Set aside depressing thoughts of what you can’t do and focus on what’s available.

Watch Out for Your Mind

Whether you meditate, talk it out with a friend or call a professional, don’t neglect the mental side of self-care. By caring for your mind and acknowledging unhealthy thoughts throughout the healing process, athletes can better fight their invisible opponent, depression. Many of the things people do to care for their mind actually improve their body, too. Health should be holistic — nurture the mind, soul and body after a sports injury for a faster recovery and happier you.

Written by Corrine Keating, visit her blog Why So Well

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