Redefining Normalcy: The Role of Sports in Post-Trauma Rehabilitation

Health and WellnessPost-Trauma RecoverysportsWheelchair fencing
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Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

"One day my whole world disappeared," answered the paralympic fencer to my question "How did you get into sports?”. The tension that arose during the conversation was expected, because talking about traumas is far from comfortable, it is even more uneasy to ask about them. In the face of difficulties, mentally and physically traumatising events, people tend to give up, curse and run away into the darkest corners of their own souls, so dark that sitting there for a while you forget the way back, you don't know where to find the light. However, many people still manage to escape this darkness and many owe this to sports. For individuals who have experienced a complex traumatic event and were clearly not prepared for it at all, it is difficult to return to a normal or at least a routine life. However, a large number of people who have gone through a traumatic event believe that doing sports has been a catalyst for restoring their physical and mental health.

"I wasn't ready for what happened to me, if it weren't for sports, I would have gotten used to it longer and it would have taken me more time to accept this situation," says Nataliya Morkvych, world champion in wheelchair fencing. Being only 15 years old she experienced a car crash with her family involved on her way from a country house. "I don't remember what happened that day," Natalya said, "I only know that I won't be able to forget it either." In that devastating accident she lost her leg. And it would seem unethical to continue talking about her story, if it were not for the athlete's calm voice, which sounded as if she was narrating events from a movie, and not a tragedy from her own life. "Sport allowed me to be reborn, start a new life, become my new inspiration," the athlete explained. Natalia took her first steps in sport already with a prosthesis. Her doctor advised her to engage in physical activity in order to get used to her “new leg” faster. "I was still recovering from this ordeal and life brought me to sport and it gave me the opportunity to quickly rehabilitate and return to normal life," Nataliya commented with a smile on her face and added, "Sport helped me quickly adapt to society and everyday life. It gave me a new perspective, I met people who struggled with bigger problems, and in comparison I realised that I am totally fine." Natalia's voice was extremely positive, through the computer screen it was possible to feel her absolut optimism and determination. One of the main factors of the effectiveness of sport in her recovery, as Morkvych recalled, was the surroundings that sport gave her, meaning "meeting friends who positively affected my recovery, my mental state, immersing me in the environment of people who are going through the same or more difficult challenges". Continuing to communicate with the athlete, the tension of the sensitive topic was alleviated, and the fear of hurting the person who had gone through a traumatic experience with my question disappeared. From the words "sport gave me the understanding that if you want something, then some circumstance can knock you off a certain path, though never stop you" it was clear that although the wound had left a scar, it healed. Healed thanks to sport. Another reason to which she owes her rehabilitation is the emergence of goals and motivation in her life. "Sport gave me a sense of self-sufficiency, that I don't just exist, that I live and move, do what I want and love. I can achieve great success and feel that my life is real and that the trauma that happened to me does not mean that my life has stopped, ” she comments and adds that “the traumatic experience is not a reason for stopping and not achieving your goal. If you really want something, nothing can stop you." Natalia says that her journey to recovery through sport always keeps her motivated and does not allow her to get depressed , "as it turned out, I have a strong enough character, and sport reinforced it even further. It gave me more strength, stubbornness, and the will to win. ” she highlights and finally adds that sport has returned “normalcy” to her life, and has not only given her physical health, but has taught her to enjoy life anew.

Such three key factors have a positive effect on a traumatic event, namely the emergence of a new environment, goals, and, very unexpectedly, routine is also mentioned by Emilia Madyar, a coach of Paralympic athletes. Emilia explains, "It is important to understand that our athletes are often not professionals. At the very beginning of their journey we train people who are trying to socialise and return to normal life through sports." She states that sports provide a good opportunity for these individuals to immerse themselves in an environment with people who have gone through similar difficulties, especially psychological ones, which, according to Emilia's experience, make it harder for athletes to recover compared to physical injuries. The coach adds that athletes "see real examples of how they can achieve success in life despite their disabilities." Emilia also mentions that these positive emotions as an aftermath of interacting with other people "serve them a good motivation to keep them relentless." The warmth in the coach's voice is accompanied by notes of professional strictness when asked about what she believes encourages athletes to improve. She responds, "To achieve victories in sports, one must exert tremendous effort. Difficulties exist for everyone, but an athlete must have a goal." This suggests sports and personal goals that her trainees set for themselves, and adds that an athlete "must learn to cope with what they have." "Based on my experience, sport contributes to mental health especially because it provides them with a sense of purpose in life. Sports give them a goal, and this goal helps many to overcome anxiety and depressive episodes," comments Emilia. She also emphasises that "Physical activity, competition success, socialising with friends, all of it brings positive emotions and helps develop inner strength and mental resilience."

First hand experience is important, but every statement must be confirmed by the opinion of specialists. As Emilia said, "psychological trauma is often stronger than physical", the psychotherapist I interviewed, who specialises in emergency psychological help, Irena Shatinska, agrees with this opinion, suggesting “when a person is traumatised, an offer to do sport can be perceived as taunting. In a daunted mental state, we usually have neither the strength nor the desire to do anything, but sport helps relieve stress.” First of all, Irena explains the benefits of sports by the release of hormones that are stimulated by sports. "Physical activity activates the production of dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure and joy, and with microtraumas of the muscles, endorphins are released - natural endophytes that cause the emergence of positive emotions.” She also continues that sports have a positive effect on the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotional reactions. According to her, with mental traumas, the hippocampus decreases, and a reduced hippocampus among other things, leads to an increase in pessimism and anxiety, making the tendency to pay attention to troubles and negative world perception even higher. When undertaking a physical activity the hippocampus works, which results in a reduction of the levels of stress, and the above-mentioned processes related to the fusion of the hippocampus. Irena says that "sport helps relieve stress, and also prevents the development of depression and other mental disorders." Sport is effective in recovering after trauma as it helps in switching attention. Because as Irena highlights "by doing sports, we focus on muscle work and distract ourselves from overthinking." Among other things, Irena confirms the theses of Natalya and Emilia, once again confirming the main factors of sport, thanks to which it contributes to recovery after a traumatic experience, namely, providing athletes with a favourable environment, commenting that "professional sport is, first of all, a group, a team, those close people who give feelings security, satisfaction, social support". Irena notes here: close relationships are the source of the love hormone oxytocin. When stressed, it is often difficult for us to communicate, so group exercise can be a good alternative to other social interactions. She also confirmed that sports help to return athletes to a sense of normality in life, because “sport provides routine.” And according to her, “routine is what we hold on to. For us, stability, predictability, and routine are supports that we desperately need in trauma and chronic stress." She also separately notes the importance of the factor of returning a goal to a person's life and comments that "Sport is about the development of purposefulness, efficiency, responsibility - because without all these qualities in professional sports, it is impossible to cope."

After listening to the stories of recovery from the previous interviewees, Irena was not quite surprised that three main factors have correlated in the answers of three complete strangers, including her, and concluded that "Bringing obvious benefits for physical health, sport can mend many psychological problems, first of all because our physical and mental processes are inextricably linked, and by improving the cause, we directly affect the outcome."



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