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The Importance of Being Patient While Healing 

Patience is essential while healing and recovering

Patience seems to be something we either have or don't have, like a personality trait — but that's not true. Patience can be learned; especially as we get older, it becomes more critical to develop our willingness to be patient when managing recovery after treatment for an injury or illness. The following examples illustrate why patience is essential while healing and recovering.

A woman walking during a physical therapy appointment. Next Avenue, healing from surgery, injury, patience
Being patient while healing might mean not being able to push as hard as one would like but still trying, and understanding that progress takes time and effort.  |  Credit: Getty

Patience to Let Yourself Slack Off  

"You may feel better," Dr. Neil Saunders, my hernia surgeon at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, told me during our follow-up Zoom call three weeks after my hernia surgery, "but it doesn't mean you are better."  

The only thing to do then is let the wound heal. 

I had been explaining to him that I'd felt good enough for the last week to do some easily inclined push-ups, placing my hands on the front porch railing and doing ten or so at a time. He asked me to stop doing these, effective immediately. I'd be able to do push-ups and pull-ups and squats and go running again after week six. Until then, I was to do nothing more strenuous than casual walking and lift nothing heavier than a gallon jug of milk. If I wanted to go about it differently, his advice was to be patient and let the healing process do its work.  

Luckily Dr. Saunders intervened before I did anything stupid and made it worse! It does happen, however, though rarely, that a patient decides to play basketball a week after surgery and tear the incision open. The only thing to do then is let the wound heal.  

Patience to Stick with It  

Physical therapy also requires patience. For example, I've undergone physical therapy for a tennis elbow and a herniated disc in my lower back. The problem, in my experience, is that individual PT sessions don't feel like they're doing anything or may be uncomfortable, and this was especially true for at-home sessions. So, again, this requires having patience both with the process and yourself.  

Cassandra Hogan is a physical therapist in Florida who specializes in helping neurological patients, such as those who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury. Unlike recovering from hernia surgery, she said that "more is better" concerning PT in these cases; it's about doing as much as possible and as soon as possible.   

"We reevaluate every four to eight weeks, depending on the condition," Hogan said. "Normally, we do outcome measures like strength, better range of motion, or a walking test to see how quickly or safely one can walk."

This might mean not being able to push as hard as one would like but still trying, and it requires patience with oneself to understand that progress takes time and effort. Similarly, older patients tend not to complete their at-home PT exercises, which becomes apparent when they visit their physical therapist to gauge progress.  

Patience to Try Hard Even When You Don't Want To  

Tony Horton, the creator of the popular P90X workout and The Power of Four, understands the trials of a long recovery from a devastating illness. A bout of shingles in his ear led to Ramsey Hunt Syndrome (currently affecting singer Justin Bieber) and Bell's Palsy. Suddenly, a guy who could knock out forty pull-ups in one go couldn't even stand on his own two feet.  

"I couldn't get out of bed," Horton said. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink. I lost twenty-five pounds. I was vomiting all the time." Just turning his head from side to side would make him sick. "I was not physically able to do anything for two months." Eventually, he was able to walk on a treadmill for ten minutes. "But then I had to sit down for two hours. And sometimes, it would make me throw up."  

His physical therapist told him that his recovery depended on how hard he wanted to work. "I kept trying, and I kept pushing," said Horton. "But what happens is that because it is so debilitating, so overwhelming, and so painful, many people just shut down. They don't want to go through it."  

In these moments, one has to learn to be patient with oneself, realize that progress may not be noticeable moment-by-moment, and not get discouraged. If you can only do ten minutes on the treadmill today, maybe you'll be able to do eleven — or five — tomorrow. But don't give up.  


How to Develop Patience  

What is patience, and why is it so difficult for some people to develop? How can one learn to be patient while healing from an injury or illness? The word itself shares its origin with the word patient, as in someone who is under the care of a medical professional. Both words are derived from a Latin word meaning to suffer. It is often synonymous with a delay of gratification, self-control, and discipline.  

In these moments, one has to learn to be patient with oneself, realize that progress may not be noticeable moment-by-moment, and not get discouraged.

It's hard because instant gratification is easy to turn into a habit. But patience doesn't have to feel like suffering. Instead, you can develop patience in a way you might enjoy by engaging in episodic future thinking. This is where you imagine positive future events featuring yourself at five different points: a day, a week, a month, three months, and a year. So, for example, you might imagine yourself tomorrow, after your home PT enjoying a glass of wine as a reward.

In a week, imagine yourself meeting your physical therapist and showing measured improvement. In a month, imagine yourself walking on the treadmill for thirty minutes and feeling tremendous, or reaching up overhead without discomfort if range-of-motion is your issue. Then, in three months, imagine playing tennis without pain. Finally, imagine yourself recovered within a year and engaging in an activity you couldn't have dreamed of before, like running a half-marathon!

Episodic future thinking has been shown to reduce what is known as delay discounting, which is the idea that it is better to satisfy your immediate desires rather than try to forestall them for something better later on. Instead, episodic future thinking provides cues that give you a taste now of that future something better. Doing this daily will improve your ability to exercise patience and reap its rewards.

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