How can the mind increase the risk of injury?

July 19, 2021

How can the mind increase the risk of injury?

"What makes men suffer are not events, but their appreciation of them"  Epictetus (55-135).

Mind sports injuries

It is appropriate to begin with this great reflection of the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, where he describes the importance of making a correct assessment and acceptance of the situation. Sometimes we tend to overvalue a situation negatively, so we turn a very simple and brief problem into a very tedious, complicated and complex one, which harms us and negatively influences our mental and physical health. The main thing is not to assign more relevance than it has to a specific situation. Given this small reflection, I add this other phrase of the philosopher. 

 "Man is not so much concerned with real problems as with his imagined anxieties about his real problems".

What basically comes to say that, that it is not so much the problem or situation, but the mental representation that we make, which generates anxiety.

Assuming that sports injuries are normal and they will appear yes or yes in the life of any person who performs sports or physical activity on a regular basis. All athletes are exposed to them and we are going to injure ourselves throughout our sporting life, however there are a series of factors that favor the probability of suffering an injury. Knowing and trying to control these factors we can prevent some injuries, reduce their severity, decrease recovery time, enhance the rehabilitation program and encourage a return to training and competition. In this case we will talk about one of the most important factors throughout the injury process, stress.

Sport Injury Mind

We are no longer surprised to turn on the television, the radio or open a newspaper and find ourselves with the word stress,post-vacation stress, work stress, postpartum stress, sports stress and a long etcetera. We have become used to hearing this term and even introducing it into our daily vocabulary.

Do we really know what stress is and how it affects us?

Lazarus (1984) defines stress as “a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is valued as overflowing or as something that exceeds their resources and endangers well-being”. In other words, it is a subjective assessment, where the demands of the environment exceed the resources at my disposal, so the situation is beyond my control. To understand the seriousness and great impact that stress has on society, I am going to present the data obtained in 2018 by the Official College of Psychologists (COP). They carried out a study with people between 18 and 64 years old, and concluded that out of every ten people, nine (96%) confirm that they have felt stress during the last year and four out of ten have also suffered it continuously (42,1%) . Which would mean confirming that around 12 and a half million Spaniards suffer stress every year and therefore constitutes a problem in today's society.

Stress sport injury

What is the impact of stress on sports injuries?

The presence of stress in an individual increases vulnerability to injury for several reasons:

  • Stress produces a muscle over-activation favoring the appearance of fatigue and physical exhaustion. Which, in turn, can lead to poor motor use and coordination, attentional distractions, and flexibility problems. All this affects the efficiency and quality of movements, increasing the risk of injury.
  • Stress weakens the immune system of the athlete, which makes us less prepared and more sensitive to a possible injury.
  • In sport we find many situations that increase our stress level, for example, an athlete who has to pass a score to be able to participate in a specific competition. There are also personal situations that increase our stress and harm our sports performance, for example an athlete who, before a training or competition, argues with his partner. All of these situations can increase our level of activation.An athlete who does not reach the optimal or necessary state of alert suffers many implications in his attention processing (dispersing it). These attentional deficits can cause confusion, causing them not to focus on relevant aspects, ignoring important information, making mistakes in the execution of the activity and in a quick and erroneous decision-making. All of this increases the likelihood of injury.
  • Following the line exposed in the previous point, stress can also cause the opposite, a very low activation level. How? High levels of stress can promote psychological and therefore also physical fatigue, and low and apathetic moods, all this makes it difficult for the athlete to increase their level of activation, preventing them from reaching their optimal level to perform correctly. An excess of relaxation in sports practice will directly influence our attention system (reducing it), causing us to make attentional errors and stop paying attention to relevant aspects, favoring the appearance of errors and increasing the risk of injury.
  • Following the line of an inadequate level of activation, stress also increases impulsivity and aggressive behaviors and physical risk. There are two forms of response to a stressful situation, fight or flight, in this case, impulsive and aggressive responses are part of the fight response.
  • In the same way, the other way of responding to stress is the answer of Escape. Some athletes have found that the period in which they are injured is ideal to escape and get away from stressful situations. Therefore, sometimes thanks to the injury, they can avoid unwanted stimuli that generate stress.
  • Stress and situations of uncertainty can cause the athlete to want to control the situation, sometimes in an excessive way, which leads to an abuse of physical activity, even going so far as to train beyond their physical and psychological capacities. This factor is known as overtraining. In these cases, the athlete can ignore their own vulnerability to the injury and their own physical capabilities at that time, quantitatively exceeding the appropriate training, increasing the risk of injury and favoring the appearance of one.

Therefore, stress can in many different ways increase vulnerability to injury, so a early identification of the first symptoms of stress, to carry out a correct intervention early, so as to reduce the risk of injury, shorten the recovery period and return to training and competitions in the best possible way.

Fall Tour de France

As already mentioned above, the very nature of physical activity and sport invites injuries to occur, then, as the saying goes "better safe than sorry". However, if we have been injured, the ideal is to take a positive perspective, seek a goal, be motivated and have a resilient mindset.

Y, What is a resilient athlete?We are currently bombarded by the term resilience, defined as the ability to adapt to extreme situations, very complicated situations, overcome, learn and emerge stronger from them. During the injury period we must acquire a resilient mentality, so that we take advantage of the time in rest to continue learning and training other relevant aspects in sports practice, the psychological aspects, and use the injury as a opportunity to continue growing as an athlete. 

Therefore, as a conclusion we must take into account the importance of our mind in our physical health, specifically the stress in sports injuries. Knowing the importance it has, it is appropriate to know yourself correctly and to know how to identify the first symptoms of stress, so that you can begin to work on it to reduce the risk of injury, enhance our sports performance and promote our well-being.

Leticia Montoya Sports Psychologist


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