Training Tuesdays: Stress/Injury Connection

I am now officially (once again, for about the third time) injury free for a full 8 weeks. It’s actually been about 10 weeks but, then again, who’s counting? Right, that would be me who’s always counting, at least ever since my physiotherapist told me I needed to make it through 8 weeks being pain free to be considered on the mend. I’ve reached that milestone a couple of times in my almost-one-year (!!!!) recovery period only to then experience a setback. Still, each time I reach 8 weeks I feel a twinge of hope and optimism that maybe, just maybe, things are finally on the up and up.

This time, however, I have experienced a noticeably different upswing in my injury recovery. For the first time since my injury I am not constantly afraid of re-injury. My body feels strong and I feel capable of continued progress. So what’s the difference between this time and all those other times? This time around, my overall levels of stress and anxiety are drastically lower. You might be asking if I really think high levels of stress were contributing to my lengthy injury, and my answer is a resounding yes.

I firmly believe in the mind-body connection and the power of our emotional/mental states to have very real, very physical consequences on our bodies. There’s actual bodies of research that back up this connection, too. Though not often cited in western medicine, there is a evidence that some back problems lack a legitimate mechanical or physical cause. In these cases, unconscious tension resulting from stress could be the true culprit. Dr. Sarno is one of the leading proponents of the stress-back pain connection and claims that tension causes actual changes to our body’s nervous system: constricted blood vessels reduce oxygen supply to muscles and ligaments and, all of a sudden, we start to experience muscle pain or spasms. In some cases, though there is an incident that triggers the initial injury, emotional factors can be the cause of ongoing pain and tension long after the injury has actually healed. How so? It turns out that even the fear of re-injury can have detrimental impacts. The fear of getting hurt and being in pain can cause individuals to scale back their activity levels and even modify their basic motions in such a way that causes decreased muscle strength and fitness, which then makes pain levels worse. Yikes, right?

For those (like me) who like a good, rational explanation for an injury, it can be a tough pill to swallow to think that your own emotional state may be contributing to prolonged pain and re-injury. And it’s certainly not true for every back injury. However, if I look at my own case, it all makes perfect sense. I have no doubt that I did something last year to kick off this injury cycle. Since the initial injury though, I have been riding a wave of anxiety about re-injury coupled with extremely high stress and anxiety (well, unhappiness actually) with my work situation. It was a perfect storm for wreaking physiological havoc on my body, and likely causing me to continue to experience ongoing pain and tension when my actual injury may have fully healed already.

What I see now is that the more I trust my body, the more it responds to training. The more I find ways to reduce my stress and anxiety (in this case, and quite counterintuitively, by quitting my job), the less I have experienced any pain. Even standing in lines at Disney World for hours on end, and walking 20 kilometres a day didn’t phase my SI this time around. I came home after a workout-free week and launched into a run with no ill effects. I promise you this wouldn’t have been the case a few months ago, and I believe it’s largely because I was so worried about re-injury, almost to the point of expecting it to happen, and because I was so incredibly unhappy at work. The fear, the stress, and the frustration my initial injury caused, combined with job-related stress, seems to have contributed to a vicious cycle of tension, re-injury, and then even more stress. Damn you, stress! You really are an evil force!

What does mean? Again, I am certainly not saying that this is true for every back injury, but there does seem to be some compelling evidence that prolonged back injuries and back pain could be more related to emotional factors than we think. For me, I’m continuing to work on calming myself during periods of high stress, as well as trying to let go of the fear-driven belief that certain activities or workouts will cause my injury to come back. It’s not easy, but so far it seems to be making the biggest difference.

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