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  • Writer's pictureAriela Liberman

The Link Between Physical Injury & Mental Health in Your Recovery

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

We all know that the brain is a strong and complex organ; it controls our thoughts, emotions, muscles, behavior, and so much more. However, did you know that there is a link between mental health and physical injury? A common misconception is that injury recovery is simply determined by physical aspects, whether or not you attend doctor's visits and physical therapy sessions. Yet, the mental aspect of a recovery journey isn't paid enough attention to. The link between physical injury and mental health is important to understand in your recovery process.

Injuries and pain can dramatically affect your life; they can interrupt daily routines, hobbies, and work, causing a flood of many different emotions. Remember, emotional reactions to injuries are normal, but the way you respond to the circumstance is what is important!

women hugging for mental health support.

Emotional Responses to Injuries or Pain

When your body lets you down in some way, such as a sports injury, work injury, knee pain, etc., that can be hard to deal with. The pain or injury can limit you from participating in activities that bring you joy or satisfaction, which can lead to feelings of sadness, isolation, frustration, and anger, along with other issues like sleep disturbances, alterations in appetite, and social withdrawal.

These emotions can negatively affect your physical recovery due to a lack of motivation, lack of hope, and a fear of re-injury.

Harmful Psychological Factors in Injury Recovery

According to Boston Children's Hospital, a full recovery is based on certain factors. They note that several studies have shown that factors such as depression, anxiety, stress, and fear can impact a full recovery.

In the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, a study was conducted on 668 unintentionally injured adults and their mental health 1-12 months post-injury. Their findings state that 15% of the adults reported feelings of depression, and 16% reported feelings of anxiety one-month post-injury. They also found that higher depression and anxiety scores were associated with a lower rate of a full recovery 12 months later compared to those that didn't experience depression or anxiety.

In the Journal of Sports Medicine, data was studied regarding psychological variables on rehabilitation outcomes. The results found that the higher the psychological distress, the more negatively it impacted the recovery process. They go on to explain how stress responses can further inflame the body and increase the risk of infection. Anxiety and fear also play a role, as those factors can decrease confidence in the recovery process.

Overall, your mental processes can have a huge impact on your physical recovery. When there is a lot of fear, anxiety, and negative feelings about yourself and your recovery, those thoughts and emotions become self-limiting beliefs. Your injuries and chronic pain don't define you!

A word of encouragement from one of our physical therapists at Rehab United Seattle, Dr. Caitlin Cooney:

It is easy to miss out on who we are. We define ourselves by what we do, see, and experience. What our job is, what our relationships are, and how we look and feel. Our concept of who we are can be fleeting and interchanging. This can be freeing when we are able to see potential in ourselves; it can be debilitating when we create a definition of ourselves that is limiting. The truth is, we are each powerful and able to create change in our lives. It starts with our minds.

I know from personal experience and also from working with clients, that our injuries can start to define us. So quickly, pain can change from fleeting or occasional, to chronic. I don’t say this to create fear, but rather to highlight how quickly our mindset and definition of ourselves can shift.

We can go from someone who is healthy, strong, and resilient, who occasionally experiences knee pain, to someone who has bad knees. We can start to add this to our definition of ourselves, and it is easy to believe that something temporary will be permanent.

Belief can be powerful; our minds are powerful. When we believe we will not get better, our actions will change as a result. We may stop exercising, and avoid getting help. When we start to believe that we can get better, that our actions matter, and that we are powerful influencers within our own lives, we take action steps that will support us. We are active agents in our lives.

I am reaching out to those who have been feeling stuck in their pain, in their beliefs. Maybe you are not ready for physical therapy, but I want to remind you that it works. I want to remind you that you can lessen your pain, relieve your pain, and go back to activities you have been avoiding because it currently hurts too much to do so. We will provide hands-on care; we will guide, support, and cheer you on while you work your butt off getting stronger and back to what you love to do!

-Caitlin Cooney, PT, DPT, CAFS

Recover With Rehab United!

Here at Rehab United, we care about our patients; we want to see you thrive and get back to the things you love. From the front desk to the physical therapists, our staff is full of wonderful and empathetic people dedicated to giving you the best care possible. We will support you throughout your entire recovery journey, don't wait, schedule an evaluation today!


Ariela Liberman is a Marketing Associate and a staff writer for Rehab United, with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies. Born and raised in San Diego, she is a Southern California native with a passion for writing, digital marketing, health, and wellness.

Medically Reviewed by: Kelly Vanhove, PT, DPT, FAFS, ATC

Dr. Vanhove is a licensed physical therapist, certified athletic trainer, and Director of the Seattle Rehab United Clinic. With over 14 years of experience in outpatient physical therapy as well as being a Fellow of Applied Functional Science, he possesses valuable knowledge of all functional techniques of assessment, rehabilitation, training and conditioning, performance, and prevention.

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