Hello folks! This is part two of my good friend Heidi’s blog post on how being injured or in pain can lead to social isolation and how we can better handle it. I consider myself lucky to call Heidi my friend and I’m grateful our virtual paths have crossed, she speaks my truths and addresses a pretty tough, and not often talked about, topic that we need to talk about more. Social isolation is all too common and can lead to a negative cycle of being in pain, feeling isolated, increasing pain, feeling more isolated, and so on. In this post, she helps us put an end to the cycle.

Now..from Heidi…


Note: This blog touches on a little-discussed issue–social isolation. It’s heavy stuff, but if I’m not honest with you, there’d be little purpose for the words that follow. So, I’ve chosen to face this topic head on, with candor, followed by practical guidance.

I’ve divided this blog in two. In part one we talked about the sources of social isolation, and now we’ll talk about ameliorating social isolation.

I wish I could tell you to wave a magic wand and the whole social isolation conundrum would vaporize into the stratosphere. Alas, it won’t.

Despite what you’re experiencing, I want you to know you’re every bit as wonderful and complete as you were pre-injury and pain. Life is different now, but it can be just as fulfilling as it was before. I promise.

Be as gentle and kind as you would be to the person you love most when you’re adjusting to your new normal.

Let’s talk about a few strategies to make your adjustment more graceful.

1) Acknowledge and accept that, by nature, a chronic injury or illness means you’ll lose some friends–maybe even friends you thought were close. Allow yourself to mourn the loss, then move forward. Remember: It wasn’t you.

2) Choose your closest friends and let them in. Explain what’s going on and ask for their support. Yes, it’s another awkward conversation. You’ll get to the point where speaking your truth doesn’t feel so naked and exposed. Remember: honesty begets closer friendships.

3) Injury changes the dynamics of your relationships. Where you used to spend hours pounding the pavement and talking shop, now you have to talk about…wait…What do you talk about? Ahhh…here’s the good part. Now you have the opportunity to get to know your friend’s other interests, wishes, and dreams, and vice versa. Tell fun childhood stories or connect on a different wavelength. It may be a stretch at first, but you’ll discover fascinating things; many times we know our training buddies in one dimension–as athletes. I’m always surprised to discover my athlete friends’ range of experiences…

4) People do the very best they know how, but let’s all agree most people in our lives don’t get it. Some friends are aware they’ll never get it, but they want to maintain a friendship with you. Here’s your chance to build a bridge.

Please don’t expect your friends to double as soothsayers. It’ll help your relationship immensely if you take the time to teach your friends what you need and how they can best support you–from word choice when checking in to being aware of signs you’re slipping down a hole.

Also, by teaching your friends how to best connect with you, you’re teaching them how to connect with other people facing challenges. What your friends potentially learn from you is empathy. Imagine being instrumental in teaching such a powerful life tool.

5) Become proficient in something new, be it an injury-friendly sport or activity. Take lessons, then consider joining a group based on the activity you’ve chosen. It’s most helpful to join a flexible group where attendance isn’t mandatory; you don’t want the new group to amplify your stress.

The hope is you use your brain in new ways to help alleviate pain, stress, anxiety, and all the gifts that chronic pain and injury keep on giving you. In the process you’ll meet some new folks and make some new friends.

Spend some time brainstorming what you’d like to explore. I’ll get you started: swimming (water is magical at decreasing pain); walking; photography; hiking; ceramics and sculpture; knitting (yes, for dudes too); kayaking; canoeing.

I was a competitive swimmer for more than a decade. I left the sport after developing a severe allergy to a black stripe on the bottom of a pool. Knowing I was facing years of recovery, my husband urged me to swim again. After rolling my eyes and sighing, I swam a whole 10 laps, but you know what? In those few minutes I realized that I didn’t feel like I had a disability in the water, nor did I experience pain.

I decided to stick with it, and, through swimming, I’ve met people I never would have crossed paths with otherwise. Most of us have some kind of chronic injury too!

Getting through the feelings of social isolation through activity

Finding a different, injury-friendly way to move connected me with wonderful people. In the top photo, I’m swimming in the cold, crystal clear waters of the San Marcos River with my dear friend, Cate (I’m on the left; she’s on the right). In the bottom photo, we’re hanging out at the ladder gathering steam to swim upstream again. Top to bottom: Tucker, me, Cate, Todd.

6) Consider volunteering some of the extra time you have on your hands. Volunteering changes your focus to empathy, appreciation, and someone else’s needs. It allows you to use your brain in ways you normally don’t removing the fog of self-pity, frustration, and impatience. You will receive so much more than you give volunteering, and I bet it’ll become part of your life forever.

7) Ask for help. Nearly everyone strives to be independent, but if your best friend asked for help, what would you do? And if he or she didn’t ask when they needed help, wouldn’t you feel distant? Don’t try to do everything yourself. When your friends are in need, you find joy helping them. When you don’t allow them to help, you deny them joy.

Here’s how you can get started asking for help.

  1. Make a list of everything you find difficult (grocery shopping, cooking, laundry).
  2. The next time someone calls and offers to help, say yes and refer to your list.
  3. After they’ve helped you, thank them with a hand-written note – stamp, snail mail, and all.

Friends can help you through tough times

My good friend, Erick, and me reliving the months when I couldn’t go up and down stairs. He’s 6’4” and I’m 5’11”. We were a planet of arms and legs traveling down the stairs, me thrown over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

The biggest challenges for anyone facing social isolation are understanding “why” and feeling like you’re the only one drifting away from the human kind into social isolation.

Understanding “why” is our foundation for action. When we realize why the isolation has crept in, we can take steps to escort it right back out of our lives. Everyone who lives with a chronic injury or pain has also experienced social isolation. It may not feel like it, but you aren’t the only one.

Over the years I’ve realized social isolation is mostly a choice, not a foregone consequence of chronic injury and pain. Armed with new insight and solutions, my hope is the strife of social isolation will catalyze meaningful evolution and change in your life.

As my friend and fellow warrior Francine says, “It’s in my nature to watch myself cussing and scraping my knees trying to climb over the tree blocking my path (i.e. social isolation in this case) while thinking the world isn’t cooperating. If I would stop and take a good look, there was a much easier path that, in my haste, I passed by. It’s still a struggle for me at times to retrace my steps and take that other path. But when I do, it’s amazing how I open to life and how it invites me in.”

About Heidi and the Injured Athlete’s Toolbox

Heidi Armstrong has spent hundreds of hours researching injury with a diverse group of athletes and healthcare providers, uncovering the most common struggles and rec for success.

Following her research, Heidi’s passion for helping athletes navigate the maze of injury became Injured Athlete’s Toolbox. As an Injury Recovery Coach she has coached injured athletes from around the world for 14 years.

Heidi works with injured athletes to: empower them to overcome the emotional fallout of injury; recommend how to vet a proper care team of skilled providers who understand athletes; identify activities that are injury-friendly and physical therapist-approved; prepare for doctor’s appointments; navigate our [nightmare of an] insurance system; and provide swimming and cycling instruction.

Follow Heidi on Twitter: @InjuredAthTbx, on Facebook: Injured Athlete’s Toolbox, and on YouTube: Injured Athlete’s Toolbox. You can sign up for her monthly newsletter at the bottom of her home page.