Dan Lippmann LCSW. Practical, Sustainable Happiness

Negative thinking: Don’t add insult to injury

If you exercise, you’ve probably experienced an injury or two. Although it’s hard to avoid negative thinking after an injury, your negative thoughts can cause more suffering than the injury itself. But, there is a simple technique that can banish these negative thoughts and pave the way for rapid healing.

A few months ago after a workout, I was sitting on a mat trying to stretch my very tight hamstring muscles, when my trainer pushed down on my back to increase the stretch. Suddenly there was a loud pop. So loud, in fact, that people around the gym looked up to see where the noise came from. I immediately felt a sharp pain in my hamstring. Somehow I managed to stand, but I could barely walk. Since I love being physically active, getting injured was one of my worst fears. Within seconds, doomsday thoughts were flooding my mind.

  • I should have known better than to let someone help me stretch.
  • I won’t be able to walk, much less exercise, for months.
  • My hamstring is probably torn.
  • I’ve probably done permanent damage.
  • Life will be awful if I can’t be physically active.
  • This is my punishment for being so distracted and stressed.

I called my doctor and scheduled an MRI for the coming Monday. By the time Dan got home, I had convinced myself of the worst possible outcome and worked myself up into a terrible state. I was feeling horrible, doomed.

Dan was sympathetic and listened to all my worries (one of the perks of being married to a therapist). He then asked whether I wanted to use a Health Switch worksheet to counteract my negative thinking. I responded with irritation, “I don’t need to do a Health Switch! I’m not having negative thoughts – I’m having realistic thoughts.” Luckily, Dan’s pretty persuasive, and I finally agreed to do a Health Switch.

I wrote down my automatic, negative thoughts and examined each one. It didn’t take long to realize that my thoughts were filled with distortions or “Thought Traps,” including:

Predicting the Future. I was not only certain my hamstring was torn, I assumed that the injury was permanent, and that I wouldn’t be able to walk for months!

Over-responsibility. It believed the injury was 100% my fault, rather than considering that the trainer or even stressful life events may have contributed.

Black and White Thinking. I was viewing the situation in either-or terms. Life would be unbearable, or it wouldn’t. I would be able to walk, or I wouldn’t. There was no in-between.

OK, so maybe I wasn’t being as realistic as I had thought. Maybe there was room for some other interpretations!

Next I created some balancing thoughts that were more realistic than my doomsday thoughts. Here are a few I came up with:

  • I don’t really know if my hamstring is torn. It may be pulled rather than torn.
  • Even if it’s torn, I’ll likely be able to continue walking.
  • I can exercise my upper body and substitute new exercises for ones I’m unable to do.
  • I usually heal quickly, so it’s unlikely to take months to get back on my feet.
  • Life may be frustrating if I can’t be physically active, but it certainly won’t be unbearable. There are many meaningful, enjoyable aspects of my life that don’t depend on being physically active.
  • There’s no point it blaming myself for the injury. These things happen. It’s better to focus on things I can control in the present moment, like taking care of myself.

As I read over these helpful, logical thoughts, I felt so much calmer and less terrified. I was able to focus on what I needed to do next to feel better. The following Monday, an MRI showed that my hamstring had a slight tear. With the help of physical therapy, I was able to resume limited exercise within two weeks.

Here are a few things I learned from this experience:

  • Needless suffering occurs when we automatically believe our negative thoughts.
  • Negative thoughts are just one interpretation of so-called reality. It’s always possible to interpret reality through a more balanced lens.
  • Sometimes my husband is right! Dan knew the Health Switch would relieve my upset, and it did. I have to give credit where credit is due.

Have you ever been upset, thinking you were not being negative or irrational, but just realistic? How did that work out? Did you get past it? Did it add unnecessary stress to your life for you or your family? Please share your experiences and questions!

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