sallycolella’s AchillesBlog

Achilles Recovery Mind

February 26, 2014 · 7 Comments

I find the most important part of my body to care for on this recovery journey is my mind.

Like many of us, my injury came at a time when I was experiencing a great deal of the joy in being active. I recorded a PR for a sprint triathlon in June 2013. During the year I joined Rock Creek Crossfit and discovered a passion for intense exercise and the pay off of increased strength.

And then . . . in August I decided to show off waterskiing for a LONG TIME behind my brother’s boat (“being in my 50s is just like my 20’s” – famous last words). Back at Crossfit two days later I landed a burpee to the sound of a nauseating “snap.”

Keeping sane without my usual activity level loomed immediately post-injury as a daunting challenge. I felt confident my left heel would re-attach to my calf but I was even more confident the rest of me would end up fat and depressed.

Fortunately, I had been studying with Rick Hanson and others who leverage the latest neuroscience research to refine mindfulness approaches that develop greater resilience and well-being.

These techniques have been life-savers during my recovery and I would like to share a few with this community over the next few weeks.

The first practice is a daily gratitude list.

I recommend you write down least five things you are grateful for each day. Try to find things that are different each day and include a mix of large items and the type of small details that might just pass you buy.

Here is a sample of my gratitude list the week before my rupture:
- Paddle board yoga with Carlo, Michael and Rebecca
- Walk and bike ride in Irvington
- Kayaking on Carter’s Creek
- Chocolate covered strawberries
- Back squatting 115 pounds 5 times

Here is a sample of my gratitude list the week following my rupture:
- Jonathan and Paul sharing their Achilles recovery stories
- Humor in OR
- Coffee and animal cookies after surgery
- Winning 2 suit spider solitaire on my ipad twice (and Carolyn teaching me to play)
- Margaret visiting me with food from Whole Foods, mags and her SMILE
- Cardinal in the front yard
- Exercising with weights that Carlo brought upstairs
- Less pain around incision
- Learning to really move on my crutches (thanks to AR blog friends and kind woman in Bethesda who helped me)

I do this list almost daily, rain or shine on my iphone when I am drinking my first cup of coffee, reviewing the previous day. If I miss a day – I go back and fill it in. I will admit that the day following my injury - August 7- is blank. Every other day for the past seven months has at least five entries.

Why does this help?

First, a brief bit on the neuroscience:

Just as our bodies are built from the food we eat, our minds are, in part, shaped by connections strengthened by where we place our attention.

Unfortunately, from an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors survived by focusing on the bad. We descended from the nervous critters who lived to have offspring because they constantly scanned for danger. The laid back types who assumed the tiger was not in the bushes often ended up as the tiger’s lunch and their lineage ended there and then.

While few of us encounter tigers on a daily basis, our brains continue to be anxious, alert and scan for danger. Our brains have a negativity bias. While research shows our actual experiences over the course of typical day tend to be mostly neutral to positive, we focus on the negative - we worry, fret and get wrapped up in concerns about what might be coming our way tomorrow.

These neurons then “fire together and wire together” – the synapses connecting our worries and concerns become stronger and we tend to view our lives and experiences through the lens of what might cause harm or stand in the way of our recovery.

The good news is that we have control over where our minds rest - by intentionally focusing on positive experiences by using tools such as the gratitude list, we counter this negativity bias and re-wire our brains to be more positive, stronger and resilient.

Rick Hanson calls this intentional strengthening of pathways “self-directed neuroplacticity.”

Let me be clear. This practice is not about living in denial. Life’s more challenging experiences, such as Achilles ruptures and related injuries, teach us. It is essential to recognize, not suppress, the more challenging emotions that arise. Paying attention to pain, fear, sadness, anger and regret mean we are heeding the signals our emotional and physical bodies are sending our way.

The point of intentionally balancing our minds is to make it possible to move through these challenging experiences and emotions in a free-flowing state versus getting stuck re-living and anticipating them.

Give the gratitude list a try for a week and let me know what you notice.
If you are in early recovery you are on your butt anyway – so you know you have the time.

Categories: Uncategorized

7 responses so far ↓

  • carolyn // Feb 26th 2014 at 10:49 pm

    My anti-spam word is ACTIVE, and Sally even though I know how much you do, reading your posts from start to finish has me gobsmacked! Even the computer says ACTIVE to comment on your post…that’s impressive / or ridiculous. Can’t believe you hang out with a slug like me. Great summary of Rick’s work.
    I love you - C

  • carolyn // Feb 26th 2014 at 10:50 pm

    Oh my god the next anti spam word that showed up is courage…love this comment sheet…

  • Lissa33 // Feb 27th 2014 at 11:29 am

    Sally, Thanks so much! I haven’t checked into this site for a week or so and yours was the first I saw this morning. I loved this!! I could have used this message when I first got injured 5 1/2 weeks ago. I have had a few pity parties that I have pulled myself out of, but the gratitude list each morning is a brilliant, positive idea to start each day! And even a great place to go on those moments that you start to dwell in the negatives…. I truly think this message should be the first one EVERYONE should see post surgery :) THANKS again!

  • Janis // Feb 27th 2014 at 2:13 pm

    I have a book, Liberating Greatness, that focuses on how you can change your neurons and ultimately your life - with what you tell yourself. I believe the mind is a very powerful tool and remaining positive is key!

  • normofthenorth // Feb 27th 2014 at 2:34 pm

    +1 to all!

  • sallycolella // Feb 27th 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Lissa - Thanks so much for your encouragement!

  • Roark // Apr 16th 2014 at 9:20 am

    So true. This is a soul destroying injury for those of us who’s identities have strong roots planted around being active. We have to rethink who we are, which is probably a good lesson in the end.

    For me, this happened during a time in my life when I was at a professional level of fitness, more than I had ever been. This doesn’t just happen to weekend warriors picking up a sport for the first time in years. So fine, after some soul searching, I can accept not being the fastest on the field for a few years, all the weighted pull ups, push ups, core work and dips are making the other half a lot stronger. No need to let yourself go, just focus on something different and positive.

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