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Oska Wellness Q&A with Lesley Paterson (Part 2 on Injury)
As a professional athlete and a coach to dozens of endurance athletes, Lesley has encountered her share of injury and illness. She knows the highs and lows that come from being out of commission for extended amounts of time and the mental setbacks that can drain motivation and lead to apathy. But she has also found positive, healthy ways of coping with injury that have made her a tougher person and an all-around better athlete.
In her new book, The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion, Lesley shares how she deals with injury and illness in her own life.
Q: You’ve been injured a lot in your athletic career. As an athlete and as a coach, what is a common response to injury?
A: Just like most people, I really hate being injured! And athletes are some of the worst people to deal with injuries once despair, anxiety, frustration, rage, depression, or the gazillion other emotions panic-rush your brain. We all respond to injury differently—some people feel mild indifference while others feel nearly suicidal—and it can be quite a roller coaster. Some days you are calm and accepting, but on other days you’re a psychotic Medusa with a nasty passive-aggressive streak, and either response influences how you get better. As a coach, I want to help injured athletes become better at dealing with the thoughts and feelings they don’t want so the recovery process can be as smooth and productive as possible.
If you’re dealing with an injury, you can probably relate to mood swings, grouchiness, and some level of social withdrawal, not to mention hearing yourself say the same stuff over and over again. If you’re the partner of an injured person, you’re forced to deal with the fallout. Injury can bring fire and brimstone to even the most optimistic and bubbly of households. If you don’t cope well with injury or you have to live with someone who doesn’t cope well with injury, there are ways to get help!
Q: How do you personally handle being injured?
A: I typically take an approach I like to call an “investigative health hustle,” which means I want to understand everything about my injury, all the current research, treatment options, leading medical experts, etc. While my husband doesn’t always understand my borderline obsessive response, I want to find every possible solution to help me get back to training and racing. By being proactive and “doing something about it,” I feel like I’m getting better and I start to feel more optimistic and less negative about being injured. It’s my way of managing the emotions that come with being injured—it’s psychologically self-medicating and motivates me to be compliant with what my therapists prescribe. It’s my coping response, not just a treatment philosophy.
Q: Since there are so many different responses to injury, is there a better or best way to cope?
A: Everyone reacts differently to pain and injuries depending on what it means to them. The nature of the pain or injury itself is largely inconsequential—it’s how we think and feel about it that gets us into trouble. It’s important that you train yourself to manage this process because this not only determines how well you cope with the injury itself but also the likelihood of you getting injured again. Yes, you read that correctly—research shows that the risk of re-injury is partly determined by your history of coping with injuries you’ve had in the past. In other words, if you can learn how to better cope with pain and injuries, you’re likely to have fewer of them, even after factoring in the physical risk factors.
We don’t exactly know why the psychological piece is so important here, but we think it’s due to our fear of pain and re-injury. It has been shown to decrease confidence, change movement biomechanics, and negatively affect decision-making, all of which are risk factors for re-injury.
By training your brain to appraise your injury in a healthy way, you can stop your brain from misinterpreting current events and can evaluate ways to cope with the implications of your injury—your physical and psychological capacity to deal with what lies ahead.
In our book, The Brave Athlete, we explain in detail how to train your brain’s injury appraisal system and find out where the gremlins are. Gremlins are psychological tendencies that affect our ability to think and act rationally and logically. By knowing where your gremlins are hiding, you can better cope with your injury.