After getting injured and reading up on the proper steps to take for treating whichever injury you sustained, you feel like you are ready to try to get back to some form of normalcy. You want to rehabilitate, you want to try your hand at exercising again, and you want to get back to your routine. You start scheduling out the things you would like to work on first. Maybe some light stretching, some light warm up and then, finally, your routine go-to exercises and training. After throwing on your training gear and heading to the gym, you finish some stretching and get pumped to throw yourself into what you do.
Except your muscles get tense. Your brain starts feeling strange, like a cloud is hanging over your thoughts. Every time you try to will your way into doing a certain movement, you can’t and you hesitate. You even alter your normal movements awkwardly to get around doing it.
But you WANT to do it! Why can’t you do it? Why isn’t your body and your mind cooperating? It should be easy right?
Such is the way of the post-injury mental roadblock.
It happens to all of us, really. Ever since we were kids trying to delve into the magic that is sports and exercise, at some point we were bound to get a small injury. Maybe it was a cut on your knee after falling to the ground, and you were extra cautious running around. Or maybe it was the time you hurt your arm playing with your friends, and decided it was in your best interest to not try throwing each other across the room. For me, it was a number of examples: getting hit in the face by a kicked soccer ball (I’m still afraid of being associated with goalkeeper status), slipping in a bathroom and lacerating my chin playing “trashketball” (suffice to say I never played trashketball again)…the list could go on but I will spare you.
Regardless, that instinct carries itself into our adult years as we try extra hard to stay in shape and stay fit. The biggest difference is that the exercises we participate in and the knowledge of our bodies are both much higher. And because of that, the amount of risk and the chance for an injury are also raised. It’s important that we be mindful then of exactly why our minds and bodies tend to do this dance of caution after an injury. Why do we fear something we have routinely done before, and enjoy? How do we overcome this sensation of athletic apprehension?
Why We Hesitate Post-Injury
The number one thing we all notice while recovering, or even after recovering from a somewhat major or debilitating injury, is that we hold ourselves back from going all out. For some reason, we can’t just jump right back into things full force and pretend that nothing ever happened. It can be a frustrating moment, for sure. I know for me, I want to immediately pick up where I left off before the injury. But every time, even now as I try to recover from my own dance related shoulder injury, I just cannot bring myself to go all out and throw myself into that same motion that wrecked my shoulder.
So the question then becomes, “Why do I hesitate?” Why is it exactly, that we instinctively are afraid of the same painful outcome occurring again and hold ourselves back mentally and physically?
There is a very specific term for this phenomena: it’s called kinesiophobia, or the fear of movement. It occurs after someone gets injured, and is a psychological mindset where a person absolutely does not want to reinjure themselves or experience even worse pain from a specific movement. The degrees can vary on how afraid you are of repeating injury from a movement, but nonetheless, it is a mindset of being afraid of suffering a repeated, painful outcome from taking part in physical activity.
A study conducted by Claudia Celletti and Marco Castori frames exactly what kinesiophobia is: “Pain-related fear can be defined as the fear that emerges when stimuli that are related to pain are perceived as a main threat. Fear in relation to pain is described in three constructs: pain-related fear, fear of movement, and kinesiophobia. Kinesiophobia is the most extreme form of fear of movement, and is defined as an excessive, irrational and debilitating fear of physical movement and activity resulting from a feeling of vulnerability to painful injury or reinjury.”
The keys to unlocking your mental block, your kinesiophobia, post-injury are threat, irrational and vulnerability.
Threat is an important word to really key in on because it is an aggressive, attack word. Post-injury, our minds are racing against doing the movement that hurt us because that movement is the enemy. We see it—to a degree—the same as someone throwing a punch at us. By that, I mean it is a physical thing that we know hurts, so our immediate course of action is to avoid it. When we just don’t do the action, we dodge the punch. No harm, no foul.
Irrational, then, is the second most important of the three because it explains exactly what you are being. You’re being irrational, that is, you are overthinking and being a tad out of your mind. You and I both know that in the back of your head when you are about to reengage in that one thing that hurt you, your brain is screaming, “NO! Don’t do it because what if you break your arm this time? What if the bar falls on your neck? What if you can never do this or anything else AGAIN!?” Our subconscious gets a little too threat-happy, a little too over-anxious, and we become the crazy guy in the corner of the gym refusing to do squats because he saw that YouTube video of the guy blowing out his leg.
The last word of the three, vulnerability, is the most important. This is because it highlights something you need to come to grips with when you do any physical activity. Our bodies are wonderful creations of God, capable of doing amazing things, but in order to achieve those things—or in order to build and sculpt our bodies how we want—we need to put our bodies on the line a bit. We need to embrace the danger of feeling pain in order to learn from it. Once we embrace the simple truth that we are putting ourselves in at least a small amount of harm’s way, we can evolve physically and reach our goals in fitness.
How to Overcome Kinesiophobia
We now know the why of our fear of aggravating an injury again, but how do we overcome that? It’s easy to understand that we are scared, but obviously the toughest part is getting over it. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of studies on the “how” so much as there is the “why”, and even then, it is widely acknowledged that studies about kinesiophobia and the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia (a “rate-your-experience” type of test to determine your level of kinesiophobia) are weak at best. So what are we to do when we face it?
The first thing I can tell you out of my own experience is to commit! Commit to a number of things to ensure that you have the best opportunity to give yourself success post-injury. Commit to your rest and rehabilitation seriously, so that you can give yourself ample time to heal properly. Commit to the understanding that injuries happen to everyone, not just you, and that there are worse possibilities than what you are experiencing at the present moment. Then of course, commit to getting back to work with all your passion, heart, and joy!
Just as well, I think it is important when overcoming your fear of re-injury that you take time to work on the weaker aspects of your fitness. For example, if you are bad with your other arm and your dominant, strong arm is injured, workout that weaker arm just as much as your injured one. The more balanced we can make ourselves physically, the more we are giving our bodies insurance against recurring painful nightmares. Plus, you are reaping so many more benefits being an all-around fit person than just being good at only one thing!
And last, but certainly not least in terms of overcoming your fear, is to be thankful. Just be thankful that you have the ability to train, to exercise. Be thankful to God that you have a body that is functional and can heal itself. Be thankful you even have a body to begin with! The body is a beautiful thing, and we should definitely not take this wonderful present for granted.
Injuries suck. We all know that. They can be painful to endure, and even more painful to recover from.
They can sap your confidence away, and humble you in ways you didn’t realize.
But don’t let that injury produce a shackling fear that prevents you from being all that you can be. Instead, let that injury produce a fear that you aren’t nearly where you need to be—that you aren’t good enough yet.
Then capitalize and continue the grind. Don’t stop building, there’s more work to be done.
Written by: Michael “Bboy Roach1” Roach