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The Injured Hiker’s Guide to Staying Sane

Getting injured isn’t the end of the world (we promise). Here’s how to keep from spiraling.

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I heard the pop before I felt it. I was hiking through the woods in a park near my home, and the autumn leaves lay thick on the ground. They hid the dips and divots in the earth, and every now and then I would plunge through the leaves into a hole. Only this time, my ankle caught the hole sideways and bent inward with a crack. It felt like it had folded in half.   

I cried out and hobbled a few steps — then stood there, bent over and grimacing into my knees. I waited for the pain to subside. It didn’t. I blinked back hot tears. 

Not again. 

Between my proclivity for klutziness and a tendency to overtrain, my hiking career has been a near-constant string of injuries. When I go to the gym these days, I spend 50 percent of my time doing rehab for old injuries and the other 50 percent doing pre-hab exercises for injuries I expect to get later. You’d think by now I’d be able to take them in stride. But as someone who relies on hiking and running for mental health, I still feel gutted every time I’m benched by an injury.

This sprain was no different. Panic exploded through my brain. What am I going to do? What if it never heals? What if I need surgery? Will I have to cancel my hiking plans next week? What about the trip I have coming up? How am I going to stay in shape? How am I going to stay sane

I limped home, stewing in my thoughts. Then, I did what I always do when I get injured: I scheduled an appointment, made some lists, booked some friend dates, and started moving forward. It’s a system I’ve refined over countless sprains, strains, tears, and breaks. It might not necessarily speed up the healing process, but in terms of sanity maintenance, it works every time.

Next time you get injured, here’s what to do to keep yourself from spiraling.

1. Make a doctor’s appointment, even for small things.  

Even if you think the doc is just going to tell you to put your feet up and take it easy, I still recommend going in. During the first few days post-injury, uncertainty is usually the biggest mental drain. Does it still hurt? How about now? Is this a real injury, or just a little tweak? Can I work out tomorrow? How about the next day?

Getting a professional opinion from a doctor or trusted physical therapist—even if it’s news you don’t want to hear—will give you concrete parameters to work with. Scheduling an appointment will also make you feel more proactive and therefore more in control over your situation. That can do wonders for anxiety. Plus, the faster you get an injury diagnosed, the faster you can start doing what you need to do to recover.

2. Make two lists. 

Whenever I get injured, I immediately make two lists: one of all the reasons why this is not the end of the world, and one of all the things I’m excited to do while recovering (i.e. things I can use to distract me from trying to sneak in a hike). Usually, the first list looks a bit like this:

  • This isn’t the first time I’ve been injured. I survived the last one, and I’ll survive this one. 
  • Maybe this is a sign my body needs more rest
  • Actually, now that you mention it, I’m going to get so much sleep now that I’m not waking up at 4:00 A.M. to hike with Barbara before work every Tuesday. 
  • I never liked Barbara anyway. 
  • I’ll finally be able to go to shows on the weekends because I won’t be away on hiking trips. 
  • And stop making excuses not to call my mother.
  • Hey, maybe this injury thing isn’t so bad after all. 

And second list is more of a to-do list. A sample: 

  • Spend time with people I actually like (i.e. not Barbara)
  • Read the huge stack of books on my nightstand. 
  • Finally watch the new season of Stranger Things.
  • Learn a new language. 
  • Take a pottery class. 
  • Learn to cook something impressive. 
  • Try really hard not to think about hiking. 

3. Make an exercise plan. 

The hard truth is that you can get as excited as you want to about learning a language and reading 1,000 books over the next few weeks. But if you’re an active person, regular movement is probably a big component of your mental health. That means you’re going to need a new exercise plan if you want to get through your injury without falling into a deep pit of angst and despair. Swimming, core work, and hitting the gym can all be good alternatives, as long as your doctor or physical therapist approves. If these don’t sound like your cup of tea, find a buddy who will commit to going with you a few times per week. It also helps to set a goal. Some ideas:

4. Focus on health, not physical appearance. 

Your body will almost certainly change while you’re injured, and that’s OK. It can be tempting to try to limit how much you’re eating during the recovery period, but this is a common blunder injured athletes make. That’s because your body needs a ton of calories and nutrients to repair itself. Food is essential fuel even during periods of rest. Plus, restricting calories can have a negative effect on mood—and mood is something you can’t afford to neglect if you’re already bummed about being injured. During your recovery period, prioritize eating lean protein, fresh fruits and veggies, and whole grains (and in plentiful quantities). Also don’t be afraid to treat yourself, especially if you’re spending more time eating out with friends and family while you wait to hike again. 

5. Take things one day at a time. 

When you’re injured, it can be overwhelming to think of the weeks or months ahead. So, don’t. Instead, look at how many weeks you’ve gotten through already. Pat yourself on the back for making it this far, then ask yourself, “What can I do to be healthy today?” That might mean a big breakfast and a slow walk around the block. Or, it might mean staying on the couch instead of pushing too hard.

If your doctor or physical therapist has prescribed stretching or exercises, follow those instructions to a T. Keep fueling and hydrating, listen to your body, and be kind to yourself. Some people recover faster than others. Some recover slower. That’s OK. You’ve done hard things before, and you can do this, too.

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