How to Bounce Back From a Health Crisis
It’s not the cards you’re dealt, but how you play them
After a major injury or illness, your own participation and perspective can make the difference between moving past a health crisis and letting it define the rest of your life.
Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo cites two reasons why. First, the right attitude corresponds with a stronger commitment to physical therapy or rehabilitation. Plus, happiness is healing. “When we experience chronic stress, when we’re upset or depressed, that actually impedes our immune system,” says Lombardo. “Our body does not heal as well.”
Here are ways to keep both your body and mind healthy after a major injury or illness:
After a Health Crisis, Get Motivated for Rehabilitation
- Find a physical goal. New York City-based sports medicine physician Dr. Jordan Metzl believes no matter the injury, everybody can do some sort of therapy. “I never recommend complete rest,” he says. “If you have a broken pelvis, you can do the arm bike or get in the pool.” There is a benefit in having something to work at. “Just trying to feel like you’re a master of your domain makes a big difference for people,” he says.
- Form a rehab squad. After 65-year-old Florida author Keith Guernsey had two surgeries for brain tumors, he turned to food for comfort, gaining 100 pounds. Eventually he lost the weight, thanks in part to the pals he sees at the gym during his 5 a.m. workouts. “We banter back and forth about sports, life, what we can do to solve the world’s problems,” he says. “I don’t have to do it alone.” Join an aqua jogging class or invite the grandkids to work on their counting while you do your exercises.
- Get in touch with your body. When 71-year-old New York writer Stephanie Golden was recovering from hip replacement surgery, she drew on her experience co-authoring books with physical therapy experts. They taught her about deep muscle work and therefore her own anatomy. She believes too many older adults prefer not to get touchy-feely with their own bodies. “In my experience, when you go really deep into your body, you uncover certain feelings that are stuck in the tissues and people don’t want to do that,” she says. Treat yourself to a massage and ask your therapist to explain what’s going on with your muscles and tissue: if you’re truly averse to being touched, look into self-massage.
- Help others. When Metzl was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a knee injury, he volunteered with the disabled runners program Achilles International. It put his own health in perspective. Lombardo encourages patients to mentor those who are earlier in their recovery journey. Not only are you doing a kindness by sharing your perspective with someone else, she says, “We don’t realize how far we’ve come until we see someone who hasn’t come as far. That can be very powerful.”
Maintain Good Mental Health
- Accept and look ahead. Lombardo believes it’s beneficial to reach a point of acceptance — which is not the same as accepting defeat. Instead, acknowledge where you are and what you can realistically do about it. Catastrophic thinking, she says, “Will do you no good emotionally or physically.” Try guided visualization books or meditation apps. Or check out inspirational stories from people who have been there. A great example is Olympic pentathalete Marilyn King, who came back to compete after a serious car accident.
- Smile more. “There is evidence to support that laughter and a positive mood can be healing,” says Lombardo. Make it a point to spend time with your most positive pals and to get recommendations on the funniest shows on Netflix. After retired dietitian Liz Reidy broke her pelvis at 62 on a 2011 bike trip in Argentina, she was just happy to be in her own house. “When your accident happens 4,000 miles away, there’s a certain joy that comes from the fact that now you’re home, so that really carried me for several weeks,” she says.
- Keep your eye on the prize. If the road to recovery seems unbearably long, find closer mile markers. Reidy focused first on getting up the stairs on her own, and then eventually to walk a few blocks outside in her busy Chicago neighborhood. “To walk that far when I hadn’t been outside, that was a long way,” she says. South Carolina potter Donna Conley is recovering from knee replacement surgery and is laser-focused on getting back to what she loves most: “I want to get my hiking boots on badly,” says the 72-year-old. “Right now I’m just easing my way downstairs, one step at a time, but I’m going to get back outdoors and into the woods.”
- Have cheerleaders. Many people point to their family members as great sources of support. “Thanks to a wonderful spouse who took over housework and cooking, I thrived so much so that people can't tell I broke my ankle unless I tell them,” says Carol Gee, 67, a retired air force veteran in Atlanta. “Everyone around me acted as if this was not my permanent situation,” Reidy says of her broken pelvis. “When I first used the walker and held onto my kitchen island, they took a picture.” On the days when it’s hard to be positive (and there will be those days), your team can help get you back on track.
- Make something. Art and hobbies can be therapeutic and help you feel productive during recovery. For Conley, that meant getting back to her ceramics studio, even though working the wheel was difficult. “It was something I needed to do,” she says. Guernsey found it therapeutic to document his recovery journey and love of sports in the memoir Confessions of a Beantown Sports Junkie, while Gee wrote her own book, The Venus Chronicles, while recovering from her broken ankle. She says, “Writing helped me to focus on something else besides my injury.”