Outdoor injuries: More than just coping with physical pain

Almost anyone with a passion for the outdoors and adventure will sooner or later get pretty banged up. Whether it’s an overuse injury like shin splints or an acute injury such as a torn ACL, dealing with it can be frustrating and a seemingly never-ending process. However, if we have an open mind, we can treat our recovery time as a chance to self-reflect and to discover and explore interests and hobbies outside of our usual routine.

 

The Five Stages of Grief

For those of us who love to scale walls, float rivers, or run trails, an injury can be as much of a mental burden to overcome as a physical one. Outdoorsmen and women are often so connected to their adventurous lifestyle that an injury can seem to be a threat not only to a hobby but to our happiness and our self-identity. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s popular Five Stages of Grief model is a useful tool for identifying and understanding the psychological process of dealing with an injury. I didn’t learn about Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief model until college, but looking back over past injuries, I can clearly see the behaviors and thoughts of each stage.

1. Denial. A couple years ago I developed Golfer’s elbow (tendonitis) in both of my elbows from long bouldering sessions four or five times per week. The dull, constant pain crept in, but I kept ignoring it — after all, I was making great progress in my training. I would wake up with the pain, and it would follow me everywhere. “It just needs to warm up a bit” I would tell myself, “my body is just getting used to climbing, the pain will go away any day now,” I would say. This stage, as its name suggests, is all about denying that we have a problem. This is a defensive response; if we ignore the issue, then we can keep on (trying to) do the things we love.

2. Anger. Once the pain continued for a few weeks unabated, I got frustrated. “Why did this happen to me?” “There are other people who climb just as much as me who are fine.” “This is bullshit!” The anger stage takes hold when our denial starts to fall apart. Anger is really the hurt and fear of our injury expressed outward. Pain and fear are weak emotions so instead we get angry because it makes us feel in control of our uncontrollable situation.

3. Bargaining. As the anger subsided I began to try to fix my situation by bargaining with myself. “Alright, I’ll only climb a little bit tonight” or, “I’ll take a rest day, it should be back to normal after that.” These became my new mantras as I tried unsuccessfully to mend my wound. The bargaining stage is an extension of trying to control our injury on terms that are acceptable to us. We have begun to realize that something must be done, and try desperately to cling to control.

4. Depression. When my bargaining didn’t pan out as expected — big surprise, I know — I entered into the depression phase. “I’m going to be like this forever,” “I’ll never be able to climb,” “What’s the point of this,” “My friends are going to get so much better than me and leave me by the wayside.” The depression stage is where we realize that the situation is as bad as we have secretly suspected all along. We have an injury, we can’t deny or bargain it out of existence. The grief of losing out on something we love really sets in.

5. Acceptance. Finally, after months of stumbling through this process, I reached acceptance. “Alright, I’ve got to take some time off bouldering,” “This doesn’t change who I am,” “I’m going to be alright.” The the stage of acceptance is characterized by calmness. We aren’t happy with our situation, but we accept it for what it is, and do what we have to to get healthy again.

So I took some much needed, but equally dreaded time away from the bouldering gym. And you know what? My life didn’t end, my friends didn’t forget about me, and the bouldering gym was still there after six weeks away. I spent my recovery time getting into CrossFit, though I avoided exercises like pull-ups that would aggravate my elbows. It was great to jump into a new hobby. I felt refreshed and, despite my constantly sore legs, it felt good to focus on my often overlooked lower body strength. I ended up making friends and am still connected with the CrossFit community to this day. The acceptance of my injury and my taking time off, I was able to join a new community and discover a new passion.

How’s that Shoulder feeling?

Does any of my self-talk sound familiar? You’ve probably had such conversations with yourself, or will as you wind down the trail of life. But there is a better way. Identify if you are in this cycle of grief about an ache, if so, take a step back and try to think what you would tell a friend in the same situation. Whether you have a traumatic event or are experiencing an ongoing pain, it is important to listen to your body and have an honest discussion with yourself when you aren’t feeling one-hundred-percent. Do not ignore your pain, and go to the doctor if it doesn’t get better. If you do ignore an injury, it will only take longer to heal and to get you back to enjoying what you really love. If you decide that you do need to take a rest, there are still ways to keep active so you don’t go crazy. Keep on training and having fun, just be sure you aren’t aggravating your injury — if your shoulder is hurt, start trail running or hiking more, if your knee is the issue, get into that hangboard routine you’ve been looking at.

An injury is a golden opportunity to pursue other pastimes. Utilize your recovery to explore new interests or hobbies — maybe you can start using that camera you got as a gift last Christmas, or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the harmonica, or write poetry, or learn to paint, or get into extreme ironing (yes, it is a real thing). The world is full of fun and rewarding pursuits, and I promise not all of them involve torturing your finger ligaments pulling on micro crimps!


About

Born and raised in beautiful Colorado, Robert was lucky enough to have parents who took him hiking and skiing since before he can remember. He inherited this love of the outdoors and has explored the mountains, deserts, and coasts his whole life. Robert lived in Montana for a couple of years, both in Kalispell and Missoula and was blown away by the amount of wild places and sheer beauty of the landscape. He has since moved to California where he attends school at the University of California Irvine as a Business Administration major. While Southern California gets a bad rap for traffic and having a few million too many people, he is happy to report that between the Mojave desert, the San Jacinto mountains, and the mighty Sierra Nevada, he has plenty of access to world class hiking and climbing year round- not to mention some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. Don’t tell his family, but he thinks the Sierras can give the Rockies a run for their money in terms of majesty and beauty. Robert practices his passions for photography and writing as a contributor for College Outside.