Long-Term Disability Series: Physical Injury and Its Effects on Mental Health

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Life altering accidents can happen in an instant, but their effects can last months, years or a lifetime. Emergency medical treatment is focused on diagnosis and treatment of acute physical injuries, such as surgical intervention and pain management. The emergent physical needs, out of necessity, take precedent over psychological needs. However, as the accident victim makes her way through the recovery process, she may struggle psychologically to accept and adjust to the permanent impact her physical limitations will have on her life. It is, therefore, important that treatment providers and caregivers be attuned to the psychological response of an accident victim.

In this blog post, I explore common psychological responses to physical injury; offer some strategies to mitigate the emotional pain that may follow; and, explain the importance of long-term disability benefits to help accident victims work through these issues.

Psychological Response and The Stages of Grief

An individual’s response to a physical injury depends very much on their personality, lifestyle, quality of life, the situation surrounding the injury and any pre-existing psychological conditions. For example, if you are an active person who exercises regularly and derives a great deal of satisfaction from physical activity, then a physical injury which limits your ability to engage in physical activity will likely cause you greater distress than someone who lives a more sedentary lifestyle.

However, when confronting the psychological aftermath of an injury, it is common for people to go through the stages of grief.

  • Denial – There may be initial shock and disbelief in the severity of an injury;
  • Anger – Whether directed externally at someone believed to have caused the injury, or internally if a person feels at fault, the intensity of anger can vary – especially if a person’s identity or self-concept (for example, an athlete) is bound up in a physical ability that might be temporarily or permanently diminished;
  • Bargaining – A person may vow to change their behavior in exchange for a faster or complete recovery;
  • Depression – Once the consequences of an injury are cognitively processed, a person may feel a profound loss, anxiety over future uncertainty, or obsession over how soon regular activities can be resumed;
  • Acceptance – When the reality of a situation is accepted, a person may fully move forward with rehabilitation or identify ways to cope or re-organize their lives to accommodate their new level of ability.

The time required to progress through these stages, particularly if there are setbacks in recovery, varies. But there are some strategies to help mitigate some of the emotional effects of a physical injury as you make your way through the stages of grief.

Some Strategies to Mitigate Emotional Pain

  • Let your mind work for you, not against you – Researchers have found that maintaining a positive attitude and using skills such as creative visualization are related to shorter physical rehabilitation times for injuries. Positive imagery has been shown to improve mood and coping abilities, increase sense of internal control, and decrease experiential feelings of physical pain. Goal-setting and self-talk will also aid in your recovery.
  • Concentrate on what you can do – Medical studies show that physical pain is easier to forget than emotional pain. But when physical injury manifests itself as an emotional issue, it unfortunately becomes ingrained in our psychology. For some people, physical injury might symbolize an inability to look after themselves. This, in turn, results in a perception of weakness. Your physical injury may have limited, temporarily or permanently, some of your abilities – but not all of them! Although it may take some adjustment, proactively re-organizing your life to focus on your abilities and not your disabilities (or pain from injury) will help you to keep the positive attitude that is so essential.
  • Be accountable, but do not blame yourself – Taking responsibility for your rehabilitation aids in your recovery and reduces distress. But placing blame on yourself, repeatedly reliving the injury and wondering if you could have done something differently to prevent it, or otherwise dwelling on the past will not help you move forward.
  • Utilize the support of those closest to you – True strength derives from our ability to acknowledge that there are times when we need assistance. Seeking emotional support from family and/or friends will allow you to work through what you may be feeling.

You cannot choose to be uninjured once it has occurred; but you can choose how you will respond to the injury. By acknowledging the toll of a physical injury on your mental health you can take steps to mitigate the emotional pain you may be experiencing.

It’s essential to remember that proper recovery can take time and should never be rushed. You may require more time to focus on your health than a short-term sick leave can provide and claiming long-term disability benefits could be an appropriate option, especially to deal with the psychological effects that a physical injury may leave behind.

For more information on claiming long-term disability benefits or what to do if your claim has been denied, feel free to contact personal injury lawyer Renée Vinett at 416-361-7560 or rvinett@hshlawyers.com.

Renée Vinett is a partner at Howie, Sacks & Henry, LLP. In addition to being a lawyer, she has been a registered nurse for over 30 years with experience in disability management in both the U.S. and Canada. Renée’s practice is devoted to fighting for the rights of injured accident victims and their families in a wide range of personal injury matters.

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