If you are an adult coping with a recent injury, you may have a lot of questions about what to be thinking about as you recover. Apart from the physical side of the injury, there are often accompanying emotional challenges. It is important to remember that recovery from an injury involves not only physical recovery, but also emotional and mental recovery. Our goal is to provide you with information, tips, and resources to help you as you adapt to this recent challenge.
Stress and Injury: What aspects of an injury and hospital visit might be stressful?
Multiple aspects of an injury and/or the hospital experience can impact your reactions to the event. These can include:
- The type of injury you experienced
- How you got injured
- The types of treatments you received in the hospital
- Shock or feelings of loss of control associated with the injury
- Life-altering medical complications or lifestyle changes related to your injury
- Interactions with emergency responders or law enforcement
- Receiving medical interventions that you did not expect or understand
- Conditions of the hospital environment
- Pain associated with the injury
What types of changes and challenges might I experience?
It is natural for people to have some difficult reactions after a medical trauma. These reactions will naturally decrease over time for most people. Here are some common reactions:
- Difficulty sleeping, working or socializing like you used to
- Blaming yourself for what happened, even when others tell you that you are not to blame
- New and uncomfortable sensations in your body
- Difficulties with attention, memory, or concentration
- Emotional changes (anger, sadness, fear)
- Thinking a lot about the injury event itself, and trying to make sense of what happened or why it happened
Changes in Thoughts, Beliefs, and Attitudes
Following a physical injury, we focus on cognitions about ourselves, the world, and the injury itself. Cognitions sometimes change after a traumatic event like a physical injury. These cognitions might include :
- Thoughts about the world being less safe
- New beliefs about people being more or less trustworthy
- Changes in views of your own self-worth and future prospects
- Guilt related to the injury event (for example, believing that the event was your fault, or ‘survivor guilt’ if you lived through the accident and someone else was killed)
- Thoughts that your life will never be the same
- Identifying with others who have experienced something similar
- Decreased self-confidence
These cognitions can sometimes be very persistent and difficult to get rid of, and sometimes come in the form of racing thoughts or thinking about the event over and over again.
How do I manage these changes in my thoughts and beliefs?
There are many ways to increase awareness of your thinking patterns and develop more helpful and flexible thinking.
Changes in Feelings and Emotions
The emotional reactions you experience after a stressful event can sometimes be difficult to manage. These feelings can include:
- Anxiety or fear (including fear of getting injured again)
- Feeling joyful or grateful that you survived
- Feeling unreal or detached
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling constricted
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loneliness or isolation
- Gratitude that nothing worse happened
When you are experiencing difficult emotions, there are things you can do to make the emotions more manageable:
- Talk with a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling. Let them know how you are feeling and how they can help.
- Do things that help you to feel better when you are having a hard time- time outside, exercise, listening to music, prayer, playing a board game, watching a movie, reading a good book, and spending casual time with friends and family are just some of the options to consider.
- Remember that these emotions may feel overwhelming now, but they are likely to improve and become more manageable, especially if you seek support, learn tools for managing stress, and focus on basic needs such as sleep.
Behavioral reactions are important to be aware of because they can affect our relationships or slow down our recovery process. Behavioral changes may include:
- Changes in sleep and appetite
- Difficulty expressing oneself
- Being argumentative or aggressive
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco
- Withdrawing from loved ones
- Avoiding people, places, thoughts, or memories that remind you of the event
- Changes in performance and behavior at work. Click here to read our tips for communicating with your employer.
- Having nightmares
- Increased engagement with religious or spiritual activities
It is important to remember that some behavior changes are normal after an injury. After all, you have just been through a very stressful experience. It is important to be aware of any changes in how you are acting and how those changes may be impacting your relationships, work abilities, and other life activities. Work on using the skills and techniques you are developing, and seek help from a provider if you need professional support.
Physical and Body Reactions
The physical reactions you experience after an injury can be confusing, because it can be difficult to tell if they relate to your recent injuries and related medical symptoms or to the emotional and social impacts of the stressful event. Often, our emotions are connected to physical symptoms. For example, if you feel anxious you may also feel an elevated heartbeat. Physical reactions may include:
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Sweating or shivering
- Feeling faint
- Muscle tremors or uncontrollable shaking
- Changes in appetite
- Elevated heartbeat, respiration, and blood pressure
- Extreme fatigue or exhaustion
- Feeling ‘jumpy’
- Experiencing pain
Exercise, diet, proper sleep, talking with your medical provider, and seeking support from family and friends can all make these symptoms more manageable.
Click here to read about mindfulness techniques
Click here to read about our Pain Management and Relaxation exercises, which can also help with managing physical reactions like the ones described above
Memory and Concentration Changes
After an injury or other stressful event you may notice changes in things like memory, attention, concentration or ability to make decisions. Often, experiencing pain or struggling with emotional challenges affects our cognitive functioning as well. These difficulties could include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Feeling like time is moving in “slow motion”
There are many ways to manage these changes, and it is important to know that for most people these problems get better within a few weeks to a few months. We put together some tips for managing these types of problems. Click here!
As you can see from this list, not all reactions are negative! Sometimes after a stressful event people feel more clear about what is important to them and feel a renewed connection with their loved ones. While this is not true for everyone, it can be helpful to notice any positive changes that may be happening in the midst of the challenges you are experiencing.
How long will these new emotional challenges last?
Life can feel overwhelming in the weeks following an injury, and setting realistic expectations of recovery may help you cope and adjust to challenges. While there is no clear answer to how long recovery will take, in most cases, it will take a few weeks to a few months to feel like you have adjusted to the injury. If you use helpful coping techniques, your recovery can happen more quickly and effectively.
Differences in Recovery after Medical Trauma
The figure below shows different trajectories of recovery after an injury or stressful event.
The red line shows that 10-30% of people continue to experience chronic distress for a long time after an injury.
The blue line shows that a very small number of people (5-10%) experienced delayed onset of symptoms.
Notice that the majority are resilient or recover quickly. In other words, most people’s recovery process after an injury looks like either the green line or the yellow line on this graph.
The green line shows a recovery that involves low levels of emotional distress immediately after the event, and also into the future.
The yellow line shows a high level of symptoms immediately after the injury, but a clear return to low levels of symptoms as time goes on. In other words, 50-90% of people have a low level of distress within a few weeks to a few months after an injury.
It is important to note that emotional and behavioral recovery after an injury is not always predictable! There will likely be a mix of good days and hard days. Every person recovers differently, both physically and emotionally.