Why the Olympics May Have Depressed You….

Watching the Olympics, and Lindsey Vonn’s recovery from pre-competition injury and return to glory on the slopes, I was inspired. What a bounce back, both physically and mentally. How impressive, the way the human body can recuperate and then sustain such a pounding.

However, thinking of my pain patients, I worried there were a lot of resentful people in front of their televisions at the end of February. Now, not all people look at someone more fortunate than them and instantly grow frustrated or angered. But, even the most well-intentioned of people can be inclined to compare themselves to others and think, “why can’t I do that?”

So, why is Lindsey Vonn able to come back from injury so quickly, and you suffer with chronic pain for years? The answers vary and are not clear, but consider the following:

-She is a world-class, Olympic athlete, in better shape physically than all but probably 1% of the population. So, she is at a different starting point before the injury compared to most people. More in shape to start, better odds of rehabilitation (in most cases).

-She is 25 years old, so she is younger than a majority of the population (about 70% of U.S. citizens), and thus, at a different starting point, with better odds of returning to pre-injury levels of functioning. And, the older a person is, the greater the odds that they’d have sustained additional injuries, possibly even to that same body part. So, youth is a factor.

-Her injury might have looked scary on film, but the actual physical result involved (based on media reports) damage to the muscle more so than nerve or other tissue. These latter issues are largely to blame for chronic pain (not because muscle injury is not as painful, but because nerve or tissue damage can be harder to adjust to, treat, repair, or rehabilitate). So, the type of injury makes a difference. (beyond saying she hurt her leg).

-She has a team of professionals (and loads of financing) supporting her efforts to a speedy recovery; most people, even with the best medical and support team, do not have the time pressure and world-class efficiency she likely had behind her (or the money).

-The long-term effects aren’t yet clear; she may have been able to ski downhill again weeks after her injury, but the toll that takes on the knees/legs and how she suffers in the future are yet to be seen. The take home message is that short-term results do not always equal long-term gain. (There is growing press coverage addressing the long-term disability resulting from playing in the NFL, at times caused by a focus on being ready for the Sunday game rather than for a lifetime of health.)

-She had a goal; now, yes, we all have a goal to be pain and injury free, but her goal had an immediacy and passion that is hard to contest. I’ve seen patients of mine endure pain through a child’s wedding or graduation, as these events are brief, with set time parameters, and of emotional importance. However, the Wednesday after finds the patient struggling yet again.

-Though unclear (because I haven’t met her), it seems Lindsay’s confidence (or ability to throw caution to the wind) was quite high before the injury. I so often counsel patients on going slow and steady, planning for pain flare-ups following vigorous activity, and so on – she may not have considered or cared about any of that (short-term versus long-term). Also, there is less risk involved, because even if this was her last competition, sponsorship money and advertising dollars and so on will probably have her set for life, whereas the rest of us have to plan for years of working while in pain or surviving on meager disability benefits.

-What looked impressive on television is also what she does every day, it is her best skill and one she works at many hours every day. Many pain patients might be able to continue to do X task with some proficiency if they went for rehab 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, with a goal of doing only that one skill for three minutes at a time. So, the big factor here is not only innate and learned skill, but also lots and lots of effort and focus – lots of effort. So let’s not forget to give credit its due – the girl did indeed make an impressive recovery!

The reason I mention all this is not to make you angry that you’re not Lindsey Vonn. The take home message is that we all have a tendency to compare our situation to those around us. However, these are rarely apples to apples comparisons. Even if you are looking at the other patient in the waiting room (and not Lindsey Vonn), there are opportunities to be frustrated or depressed because “she has back pain like me but she can walk with less pain.” But if you can keep in mind all the factors that may differ between you two, you may better accept these differences in functionality. Someone else’s circumstances or injury, or pain, may seem the same, may even come with the same diagnostic label but that does not mean you should be like “her.”

Making assumptions and cognitive leaps so often lead to negative emotions or let downs. Awareness of your thought patterns, and how they tie to your mood, is the psychological portion of this article. If we can pause, take a breath, and evaluate the facts (beyond the smoke and mirrors and gut reaction), we might find that those urges to throw something at the television, or to silently hate the other patient in the waiting room, are unnecessary.

So, you’re not Lindsey Vonn, and that’s okay. I’m not Brad Pitt, and while that can be depressing some days, I need to remember that he may not be as happy as me, or it’s very likely that he is much happier because he has multiple assets that I don’t. But I’m not in competition with either of these celebrities; I’m in competition with my own mind to find logic, contentment, and peace. And you can too – just don’t forget to look at all the facts, the whole picture, and to avoid unrealistic or unfavorable comparisons.

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