Are You “Hurt”? Or, Really “Injured”?

            Years ago, I remember a football coach say something like, “Many of our guys go on the field and play through pain and being hurt; but I won’t let anyone play injured.” Apparently, the coach was making a distinction between being hurt, and being injured. I figured by the former he meant something like a blister, a bruise, or a body ache that produced some discomfort, but that a real athlete was able to “play through.” This view would fit under the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” On the other hand, the coach obviously saw being injured as more serious, like a pulled or torn muscle or ligament, or a bone fracture. In this case, playing would pose a real threat of further injury. (Of course, some might argue that the same could be said about playing hurt!)

            Could this distinction between being hurt vs. injured also be applied to mental anguish? For instance, you could be down in the dumps because the car repair is going to cost more than you thought, and it’s going to be a strain on this month’s budget. You’re bummed out, but certainly not clinically depressed. Would the stress about the car repair be analogous to being hurt? What if, on the other hand, your despondent mood persisted for months, disturbing your sleep and appetite, and giving you a general loss of interest and pleasure in life itself? Would this Major Depression, or even the less severe form, Persistent Depressive Disorder, be analogous to being injured? We might also ask, “Would awareness of this distinction be helpful when it comes to coping with stress?”

            Consider Carl, who recently completed his third tour of combat duty in Afghanistan, and is now home for good. He’s having a couple of beers in his friend’s backyard, and says, “You know, Dan, I had forgotten how much my kids expect from me. And now it’s worse than ever because they really don’t believe me when I say I’m home for good. They just demand my time and kind of cling to me. I’m not sure I can live up to what they want.” Is Carl “hurting,” and maybe in danger of more serious “injury”?

            Then there’s Haley, who just returned to the office after a full year of working from home. While having lunch with a co-worker she says, “Honestly, Gail, I forgot the stresses involving in getting to the office. I need to get up an hour earlier for the commute. And I have Fred around again. God, not having to put up with his distracting corny jokes during the day was a blessing. After that year of working from home, I really don’t look forward to work like I used to.” Is Haley “hurting,” and maybe in danger of more serious “injury”?

Carl and Haley are hypothetical composites of thousands of people in those situations. Simone Biles, however, is real. Following Simone’s withdrawal from gymnastics events during the Tokyo Olympics, USA Today columnist Nancy Armour cited an Instagram post from Simone 15 months earlier (April 2020) when the Olympic games were postponed for a year: “Mentally I was ready to go in three months and ready to be done. That’s what I was striving for. Now we have to take our foot off the gas. Not three months, now it’s going to be 15. For a lot of us athletes, that’s a big adjustment.”

            Simone’s post has a lot in common with the hypothetical comments proposed for Carl and Haley: All three are implying, “I’m mentally hurt and I’m not sure how long I can keep this up.” They’re not truly “injured” at this point, but sending out warning signals that the “hurt” they’re feeling has put them in a vulnerable spot, a susceptible condition that could eventually result in more serious mental anguish.

            We’ve all had experiences like this. You have surgery scheduled in two days and you get a call from the surgeon’s office: “The Dr. had a family emergency and we have to re-schedule for next week.” “Damn,” you think, “I was ready for this and now I have to psych myself up all over again next week.” Another example: You have a sleepless Thursday night anxious about your presentation to company executives on Friday, when you’re told Friday morning, “We have to move your presentation to Monday.” “Damn,” you think, “now I’ll have a sleepless weekend.” Anyone who has had experiences like these should know full well how Biles felt following the delay announcement in 2020.

            The lesson here for coping with stress should be pretty clear. When those relatively small setbacks – the hurt – bring you discomfort, don’t ignore the resulting distress and uneasiness, because those reactions are warning signals that without taking pre-emptive and proactive coping actions, the hurt could easily turn into more serious injury over time. “OK,” you ask, “what might some of those preventive actions be?” Depending on circumstances and the individual, there are potentially many. Here are four: Take some time off to give your mind a rest, and let it slowly and calmly process – on its own – the challenges ahead; talk about your concerns with others you trust, especially those who have had similar experiences and, like you, may be troubled; get outside yourself by immersing yourself in projects that serve others and bring you a sense of satisfaction and contentment. And through it all, maintain humility by remembering that it’s not all about you – you are not the primary ingredient in this recipe. These are examples of accepting, empowering, and emboldening steps for tending to “hurt,” – getting fit mentally and psychologically – and increasing your resistance to more serious “injury” down the road.

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