Many of us pour ourselves into what we are passionate about and over time it becomes a large portion of who we are. Our identity is shaped by what we do whether it be as a parent, in our profession, our recreational interests, or for some of us, our competitive activities.
As we use our talents and skills to better the world around us while making the most of the life we live, we find fulfillment. When we are fulfilled, we are content. When we are content, we are free to learn. When we are free to learn we are also free to challenge ourselves, try new things and to grow.
So, what happens to your mental health when your identity changes? What happens when those changes are physical whether it be permanently or temporarily keeping us from pouring ourselves into what we’re passionate about?
This is a major focus of my practice of Physical Therapy. Patients enter my doors in pain. These patients, understandably want their pain gone. But the piece many have yet to realize is they aren’t just suffering through a physical injury or condition. They are also somewhere in the different stages of grief.
A patient’s overall mental health plays an integral role in how they cope with and progress through healing and recovery. The seven stages of grief are not only applied to a loss of a person and as a practitioner in Physical therapy I not only see this and know this, I also empathize.
Let’s take me for example. To name a few of my roles, I am a mom, I am a wife, and I am a Physical Therapist. A few years ago, I tore my ACL (the anterior cruciate ligament-one of the key ligaments that help stabilize your knee joint.). Of course, tearing your ACL is not the end of the world in today’s medicine. We know it can be fixed with surgery and a patient is very likely to return to their previous activities. However, that all comes in time and the outcome is not the same for everyone.
In my case, during my injury and recovery I couldn’t take my daughter skiing (something we had been looking forward to all year) or even simply run around the yard with her. I couldn’t demonstrate higher level exercises for my patients to care for their needs because my physical condition wouldn’t allow the motion and stability to instruct. I couldn’t do my share of the work around the house which left my husband having to pick up the slack.
Basically, I lost who I was. I lost my identity.
Yes, I knew the problem could be repaired I am happy to report I am back to all those things, but I had to be patient with myself and cope with the loss. I had to navigate through the stages of grief as it fit into my situation.
As a practitioner I knew I would have to cope with not only the physical aspect of my injury, but the mental and emotional aspects as well. Not everyone realizes this and as a patient and therapist, I do all I can to help my patients through all of it; as a whole.
For some, the idea of losing something they love whether it be playing with their kids in the backyard, going for morning walks, or running a marathon, can play a heavy toll on their mental health. Patients have told me they feel they aren’t themselves anymore. They express the concern of “never being who (they) were” before the injury and sometimes believe nothing will ever bring them that same passion again.
This is dangerous thinking as the realization for many creates a spiral of ruminating, magnifying, catastrophizing, and can lead down the path to poor mental health and lifelong chronic pain.
Whether we all know it or not, the fact is pain and mental health are very closely linked and must be addressed concurrently. Whether the pain came first to cause the mental health deterioration or the mental health issues came first to cause the pain is irrelevant. The old chicken or egg dilemma of pain doesn’t answer the question of how to treat our patients as a whole being, not just the injury. Not just the mental health struggle. Not just the emotional distress.
Unfortunately, in modern medicine finding help usually involves many providers in different offices across different locations as there is no one stop that can provide relief. However, there is good news. Finding a Physical Therapist to help manage your chronic pain and one who will work with your mental health provider is the key. Build your team, speak up to get the care you need, find providers the meet your own personal needs. Ask your questions, advocate for yourself, and remember your injury whether it be a torn ACL or an anxiety attack are about you; all of you.
You may not be who you were before but that doesn’t mean you can reinvent your identity and still have enjoyment and a life worth living! My passion is to educate every patient that walks through my doors, so they are better equipped to build their own coping skills and learn to love the lives they have now. Most importantly, of course, I feel it is my responsibility to empower my patients to take care of their bodies to support their mental health because they are in charge, and they are more than a temporary or permanent physical injury.
Feel free to reach out to me and my team. We are more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
Meryl Sullivan, DPT, Cert. VRS, Cert DN Owner
380 Daniel Webster Highway Suite H
Merrimack, NH 03054