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Using Mind Power for Healing

Marcia Middel, PhD


Whether you are a competitive athlete or a recreational exerciser, recovering from an injury can present a challenge. How you understand and respond to the pain and limitation is a very individual experience based on many factors. There are, however, certain responses and psychological skills that can help most people take an active role in their own recovery.

Where do I begin?

People often initially feel overwhelmed by an injury. Your ability to cope will greatly improve if you work closely with your doctor and other healthcare providers to develop a clear plan for recovery.

Successful rehabilitation begins with becoming informed about your injury. It's important to know the extent of the injury, what your anticipated recovery time will be, and what you must do to recover safely and effectively.

It's important that you see yourself as an active participant in rehabilitation planning and treatment. You may not understand the scientific aspects of recovery. But you are the expert on your own experience—a reality that may either help or hinder rehabilitation.

What psychological effects can I expect?

How you respond to your injury is also very important. Although certain sports or activities have greater risk for injury than others, an injury is generally not expected and never planned or welcomed. We train to prevent an injury, but we rarely prepare for our emotional response to an injury.

Injuries have very different meaning for different people. For some, an injury might be life threatening or career ending. For others, an injury might take them away from a team or social structure that gives them a sense of identity and community. An injury can also interfere with a job or responsibilities at home. It's important, therefore, that you acknowledge that this requires coping skills to help you work through this loss—with professional help if necessary.

What type of mind-set is helpful?

Directing or redirecting your response to the injury may aid recovery. At the very least, it can help you maintain a positive outlook as you heal. A few suggestions:

  • Consider your pain and injury as something that will go away and will heal. Speak to yourself positively every day about your ability to cope with and recover from your injury. Mentally and physically befriend your pain as a guide to recovery. Pushing too hard may cause reinjury, but fearing the pain may lead to a too-passive approach.
  • Use your desire to recover to help integrate your sense of self and your mental and physical healing power. Connect with your emotions and let them guide you through the healing process: When you feel emotionally overwhelmed, nurture yourself by doing enjoyable things; when you feel emotionally strong, use that energy to progress in recovery. Women may have an especially intense response to injury but can use their feminine ability to connect with their emotions to help guide recovery.
  • Try to maintain your sense of identity and importance through activities that help you feel good about yourself. Express your needs and concerns to your healthcare team. Identify any negative mental responses to injury, then reframe them to promote a positive approach to healing. Be aware of your current level of function and what function you have lost, then move beyond those limitations to envision your future level of function.
  • Allow yourself to ask for and receive help. Surround yourself with emotionally and physically supportive people, and limit your interaction with those who hinder your healing process. By all means, be creative, humorous, and positive in your approach to the daily inconveniences caused by your injury.

What techniques are useful?

Several specific mental techniques can also aid in your recovery:

Progressive relaxation. Your mind and body need to know what tension and relaxation feel like. Starting with your head and working down, alternate flexing the muscles in each body part (producing tension), then relaxing them. Mentally and physically memorize the feeling of relaxation. Try to incorporate that feeling whenever possible throughout your recovery. This technique also helps you readily recognize tension so that you can then work through it.

Breathing. Breath control can help modify stress and your response to pain. Pay attention to your breathing during times of pain. Try to breathe freely and stay relaxed. Allow your lungs to fill completely by extending your stomach as you breathe and by feeling the air move in and out of the bottom of your lungs. Visualize healing, relaxing energy entering your body as you inhale, and a release of any negative thoughts as you exhale.

Visualization. Using imagery can enhance healing by creating a positive internal atmosphere. Focus on a scene you find positive, nurturing, and healing. As you practice this technique, you may also want to listen to music that you find peaceful. Use your progressive relaxation and breathing to facilitate this process.

Once you are totally relaxed (or as relaxed as your injury will allow), begin the visualization. Some people concentrate on total-body healing and visualize a color or sound that represents healing as it moves slowly through their entire body, cell by cell. Others prefer to focus on the injured area and create a healing image (such as "blood vessels sending out healing roots" or "particles of calcium forming like snowflakes") and hold the image and "see" the area healing. Some people combine these techniques and images.

Use visualization to create a meditative, self-hypnotic state focused on healing. Practice this daily, as often as possible throughout the day. Some people prefer to visualize only, while others like to combine visualization with mental statements like, "I am healing," "I am calm," or "I will get better."

Visualization is also helpful as a form of distraction from pain. Use your imagery to pull yourself away from your body to a scene or favorite experience. Finally, you may find this technique helpful to facilitate sleep. Bring yourself into a very relaxed state, feel drowsiness come into your body, and allow yourself to fall asleep.

What's the key to success?

The prospect of prolonged recovering from an injury can be daunting for anyone. The success you experience will be anchored in developing both your physical and psychological capacities to their fullest.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting a rehabilitation program, consult a physician.

Dr Middel is a psychologist at The Children's Hospital in Denver and in private practice in Denver.