Diary of an Injury Part 3 - Mind Games


The mental aspect of injury is more difficult than the physical. It is the mind that dictates how successful a recovery is, and there are so many daemons that can derail that success. I have seen fellow dancers recover badly from an injury not because their bodies did not heal, but because they were never able to get over their mental hurdles. Having seen this happen, the first time I had a major injury I enlisted the help of Dr Kate Hays, a performance psychologist. Just as for Olympics athletes this is a normal part of their training, the dance world has been catching on to the advantages of training our minds to enhance our performance. Since then she has helped me overcome issues with stage fright and self-doubt as well as a few injuries.

Having been through 2 previous injuries that took a fairly long time to recover from, I am now able to anticipate most of the challenges I will face, and although these challenges are still unpleasant, this time  I have reacted less emotionally when they’ve come up. I am better able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can say that, while in the past I would have had several tearful meltdowns by this point, I have so far (for the most part) kept it together. Knowing what lies ahead has been very helpful.

I know for instance that after a period of improvement I will hit plateaus that will feel like they will never end. (Check)I know there will be days when it feels much worse than the day before and that this is normal. (Check) I know that pain can make a person stressed, emotional, angry and exhausted. (Check) I know that I will be frustrated with the pace of recovery. (Check) I know that I will worry about whether I am doing too much or too little to help it. (Check) I know that other people (even strangers on the street) will have advice and expectations of me. (Check) I know that some days I will want to lie in bed feeling sorry for myself. (Check) Most of all I know that my biggest hurdle is fear. (CHECK)

In my experience fear comes in two forms, the conscious fear and the unconscious fear. The conscious fear is easier to handle. It comes in the form of all the negative thoughts and worries that take up way too much space in my head. These are surface fears like “Did I push it too far today and make it worse?,” “Did I not do enough today and therefore slowed down my recovery?,” “How long will this take to get better?,” I’ve hit a plateau!,” “I’m still not able to do x,y or z,” ‘The swelling isn’t going down. What does that mean,?” “There are too many people around. What if someone runs into leg?” By the end of the day these thoughts leave me exhausted. 

There are a few techniques that help me minimize these worrisome thoughts. Some are simple like avoiding the subway during rush hour as much as I can so that there are fewer people around to make me nervous and protective. Others are more active. Practicing breathing exercises with a guided CD developed by my acupuncturist Dr Tanaka has helped me calm my mind at the end of the day. Another technique is a simple change of focus that Dr. Hays pointed out to me. She noticed that I was focusing so much on what I am still not able to do rather than focusing and building on what I can do. This may sound simplistic, but the mind is very powerful. By focusing on the positive a person can heal faster. When I apply her idea I am able to do more physically than when I am focused on my limitations.

Another technique she gave me was to carve aside a time each day for worry. So this week I am trying to limit my worry time to a half hour each day. When worries come into my mind at other times I put them aside to think about later. This has the benefit of not denying the thoughts, but not letting them take over either.

These methods take some time and a little practice, but it is the subconscious fear that is the real challenge and more limiting. This is the fear that the body learns. It comes in the form of muscle tension because my body is trying to protect itself. It also comes in the form of learned mechanics. While I had been thinking I was walking normally, my Athletic Therapist and Osteopath had to both point out that I was still limping. My body had learned the behavior, and if I keep that up it will affect other parts of my body and slow down how quickly I will gain strength. It also comes in the form of holding back and being cautious in my mechanics. It is a strange sensation when I consciously tell myself it is ok to do something, but my body tenses and holds back.

The difficulty in addressing the subconscious fear is that it is not always obvious to the person affected by it. I needed 2 people to point out to me that I was limping. That’s where an extra set of eyes is key. I need to rely on my trainers and coaches to really watch out for any learned movement patterns. I also have to do a lot of work to gain my own awareness of when I am favoring my healthy side or protecting the injury. Just being aware is the beginning of changing the patterns.

Something else I have been practicing is a brain game with a mirror. It works by taking a mirror and having one leg on either side of it so that my right leg is reflected but my left leg is hidden. When I look in the mirror, the reflection of my right leg appears to be my left. By doing small movements with first my right leg, then both legs, then my right leg again, I am tricking my brain into feeling more confident about the abilities of my injured leg. Very cool!

Finally, where my physical training intersects with my mental training is in gaining enough strength and neural feedback so that my body is truly able to do what I need it to. The more conditioned I am, the more my brain will trust my body.

If I stay disciplined with all of these tricks and keep learning more, eventually as in the past, my fear will melt away.

I better get back to it.