Brain Health: The Power of Acceptance: Living Well After Physical Injury

by Karen D. Sullivan, PhD, ABPP

In Western societies, what we “do” often defines how we feel we are. The work we do and the roles we play often form our identity from being a “golfer” to a “walker.” Changes in our ability to do the things that previously defined us can be challenging, to say the least, and make us feel lost.

Fighting what is has its place in a physical recovery. The tough determination required to push through an intense therapy session will benefit you, no doubt, but there is also a place for acceptance at various points in your recovery. If you approach acceptance with the same tenacity that you approach other aspects of your recovery, it can have a truly transformational effect.

In various models of post-injury grief, acceptance is usually the final stage, where a person has come to terms with and accepted themselves as they are now. 

Let’s not make the mistake of confusing “acceptance” with “giving up.” Acceptance is the non-judgmental openness to what is in the here and now and can improve your quality of life and your relationship with yourself and others. Acceptance is a dynamic state of mind and not a permanent way most people feel. It comes and it goes. Some days, it feels easy, and other days, it may feel impossible. Acceptance is often accompanied by a light feeling of peace and comfort in contrast to the opposite feeling of resistance, which can happen if you insist that you must return to the exact way you were prior to your injury in order to consider yourself “whole,” “recovered” or “healed.” For the majority of people living after a significant injury, recovery does not involve a carbon-copy return to your previous life. The experience of having had the injury often changes your sense of self and your worldview. Acknowledging these changes and working to love yourself, others and the world because of them is the task of acceptance.

Experts who study the psychology of post-traumatic emotional growth tell us that there are typically four stages of adjustment after a significant physical injury: shock, defensive retreat, acknowledgment, and adaptation. 

The road to acceptance is filled with many pitstops and often includes these eight action steps:

  1. Know that it is going to take time to comprehend what has happened.
  2. Acknowledge what has changed and what you have lost.
  3. Give yourself permission to grieve.
  4. Focus on what you can still do and find ways to do the things that are hard through creativity and support from others.
  5. Find people who have thrived in the face of adversity and let them inspire you.
  6. Find another activity or mental interest that makes you feel strong and powerful.
  7. Find a way to give back. Lessen someone else’s pain by sharing what you’ve learned in your recovery so far.
  8. Talk it through with a professional or someone close to you who is a good listener and will validate all of your feelings.

Dr. Karen Sullivan, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist, owner of Pinehurst Neuropsychology Brain & Memory Clinic and creator of the I CARE FOR YOUR BRAIN program, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or by visiting www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com or www.icfyb.com.