A physical injury goes beyond the blow, wound or pain, especially when it leaves consequences that affect our daily lives. Whether it is a language disorder after a stroke or difficulties walking after an accident, sometimes you have to resort to rehabilitation to recover lost functions or learn to live with that disability while minimizing its impact on daily life.
However, when we talk about physical recovery we tend to focus solely on the medical and therapeutic aspects, ignoring mental health, even though it is also an essential component of that journey. Psychology plays a very important role in the rehabilitation of all types of injuries by promoting the appropriate mentality.
Much more than recovering the lost function
After an injury or illness that requires rehabilitation, it is common to immerse yourself in physical therapy sessions, resort to medications, and make lifestyle adjustments. Without a doubt, they are essential steps towards recovery, but… what about the mind?
A study carried out at the University of Pennsylvania with people who had suffered minor injuries but which caused some degree of functional impairment, revealed that 18.1% of them presented symptoms of depression a year later and the majority reported a decrease in their quality of life.
It is not coincidental. It has been noted that self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-confidence tend to decrease after suffering an injury. In fact, the emotional coping strategies we use can make a difference. Falling into avoidance and denial, for example, generate a more negative state of mind that hinders recovery.
The good news is that it has also been found that our mood and self-esteem improve as rehabilitation progresses. However, it is not a linear process but marked by ups and downs that, on many occasions, can lead to abandonment of treatment.
That’s where the psychologist comes into play. Psychology not only addresses mental disorders, but is also essential in helping us deal with stressful situations in the best way possible. The psychologist can provide us with tools to manage the feelings that arise during the rehabilitation process, becoming a bridge between physical and mental well-being so that we can overcome obstacles and build a solid emotional foundation for the future.
Rebuilding the pathways of resilience
Rehabilitation is not only about recovering lost physical abilities, it also demands rebuilding our self-image since this is generally affected by the loss of functionality and autonomy. It involves regaining confidence in our abilities and developing a sense of self-efficacy.
A series of studies conducted at the University of Western Australia, for example, revealed that simply keeping a therapeutic diary to record the thoughts and feelings we experience during rehabilitation can alleviate mood disorders. These researchers even observed that expressing emotions had beneficial effects on the immune system that accelerated healing.
Another meta-analysis conducted at La Trobe University with injured athletes concluded that “Positive psychological responses, such as motivation to recover, confidence, and feeling little fear, were associated with a greater likelihood of recovering lost functions more quickly.”
In general, our ability to cope, as well as having adequate social and psychological support, is vital to respond resiliently. During the rehabilitation process, the psychologist fundamentally plays the role of companion and counselor. He provides us with the necessary tools to face fears and doubts about our future during the different stages of the process and prepares us to understand, accept and overcome the challenges that arise.
To support this psychological recovery process, the ideal is to have the appropriate orthopedic products. If we have mobility problems, for example, an adapted shoe horn, a button fastener or even a simple side table for the bed can make a difference in our daily lives. These products not only facilitate rehabilitation but also psychological therapy since they provide us with the dose of independence and functionality we need to move forward. They are small physical aids that become pillars of security, confidence and autonomy.
5 psychological keys to recovery
The rehabilitation process can be a challenging journey, not only for our bodies, but for our minds as well. On that journey, the right mindset can make a big difference. For this reason, the psychological strategy usually focuses on:
1. Adjusting expectations and set realistic goals
Goals are the lighthouses that guide us along the path, but it is essential that they are realistic and achievable to avoid generating unnecessary frustration. A psychologist can help us identify our strengths and limitations during rehabilitation to set appropriate goals. Thus, each milestone we reach will serve to remind us that all steps, no matter how small, bring us closer to recovery.
2. Learning to manage stress and anxiety
Anxiety and stress are common traveling companions during rehabilitation as this process is often surrounded by uncertainty. Psychological intervention can focus on teaching us relaxation and breathing techniques that help us manage these negative emotions, so that they do not end up overwhelming us or become an obstacle to healing.
3. Gradual facing of fears
It is normal to feel afraid of the unknown. When we suffer an injury that turns our world upside down, it is understandable that doubts and insecurities attack us. A psychologist will guide us to address these fears. He will validate our emotions and help us deal with those fears, transforming them into confidence and security to open the doors to recovery.
4. Acceptance and self-compassion
Acceptance and commitment therapy can be useful during rehabilitation to help us accept what happened and its consequences. Accepting the current situation does not mean resigning, but simply recognizing reality in order to establish an objective roadmap. Instead, self-compassion will be what helps us navigate it. It is a kind of balm for the soul that allows us to heal and treat ourselves kinder, which is just what we need when we are going through a difficult situation.
5. Cultivating resilience
Resilience is the strength that allows us to deal with adversity without breaking down and emerge stronger from it. A psychologist will help us face rehabilitation and the challenges it poses with a more positive attitude. Using techniques such as reframing and cognitive restructuring, we can manage catastrophic thoughts and negative emotions to view adversity from a more adaptive and beneficial perspective.
Of course, while having psychological support is important to going through the rehabilitation process, it is also important to build a solid support network that acts as a warm coat for the soul. Sharing our thoughts and fears with friends, family or even the rehabilitation team creates an environment of invaluable understanding and support that will help us become more autonomous.
Brewer, B. W. (2018) The role of psychological factors in sport injury rehabilitation outcomes. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology; 3(1): 40-61.
Richmond, T. S. (2014) The Effect of Post-injury Depression on Quality of Life following Minor Injury. J Nurs Scholarsh; 46(2): 116–124.
Ardern, C. L. et. Al. (2013) A systematic review of the psychological factors associated with returning to sport following injury. Br J Sports Med; 47(17):1120-6.
Mankad, A. et. Al. (2009) Psychoimmunological effects of emotional disclosure during long-term Injury rehabilitation. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology; 3(3): 205-217.