Building resilience through new experiences

When is the last time you tried something new? And I don’t mean something mundane like a new flavor of coffee or eating at a different restaurant, but rather, a sport or activity intended to challenge you in some way. Importantly, this experience need not be a demanding physical pursuit. Rather, it could be anything that forces you out of your comfort zone, such as learning a new skill, joining a local club, volunteer work, or whatever interests (or scares!) you. Whether your goal(s) involve meeting new people, being more physically active, or checking boxes of your bucket list, trying new things can lead to personal growth and enrichment, as well as help build resilience.

I experienced persistent pain for the better part of a decade, and during this time, I felt my world shrink, and my experiences (new and old) were far and few between. I still went to work, spent time with family, and fulfilled social obligations, but struggled to participate in many other activities, either due to the pain itself, which often worsened with physical activity, and/or feelings of jealousy, anger, and resentment, as I watched my friends and family go about their active lives and do the things I could no longer do without pain…things that were no longer enjoyable to me because of my pain and the seemingly hopelessness of my situation.

Current advice to patients experiencing persistent pain usually involves encouraging them to continue to participate in their favorite activities, despite their pain. And this makes a lot of sense, considering that social isolation can lead to depression and, in some cases, further worsening of symptoms. But what happens when participating in said activities actually worsens your mood and increases feelings of isolation?

I’ve been a runner for most of my life. I started running when I was 13 years old, ran competitively in high school and college, and even continued running after my persistent pain started in my late 30s. Eventually, though, after I developed two tibial stress fractures, vertigo, and started having trouble walking, I had to stop. In fact, I stopped running for nearly three years. But you know what I didn’t stop (at least initially)? Being involved. In fact, I made a strong effort to remain connected with my friends and the local running community. I started timing local road races, and even got certified as a USATF Track and Field Official so I could “participate” in college track and field meets. But truthfully, this did not help me feel less isolated. In fact, it only amplified my feelings of inadequacy and sadness about not being able to run. For me, the answer (at the time) was to stop being involved with running, to stop rubbing salt in my wounds. I needed time for these invisible wounds to heal, while I also worked on healing my body.

Now that I consider myself recovered from persistent pain, which importantly, does not mean I’m 100% pain free all the time, I am once again running and am involved with the local running community. But unlike before my pain, I am no longer hyper-focused and dependent on running. And while I still identify as a runner, it’s no longer my identity, per se. I no longer link my happiness to running. Rather, I have worked very hard over the last couple years to broaden my interests, to try new things, to grow as a person and as an individual, to build resilience. Granted, most of my new interests are still physical in nature, and include strength training, swimming, cross country skiing, and road cycling, among others. This past weekend, I even participated in a summer biathlon event (run, shoot) which was a real blast (pun intended)! Okay, summer biathlon does involve running, but it also involves something new, and was really fun and unique experience for me.

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I went cross country skiing for the first time this past February.

In hindsight, I wish I had made more of an effort to try new things and get involved in a variety of activities before I developed persistent pain. Perhaps, then, I would have had other interests to focus on while I was working to recover. Could I have tried more new things while I was going through persistent pain? Definitely. But it’s also true that new experiences, including many otherwise enjoyable activities, can seem too overwhelming while dealing with the stark realities of living with pain.

I realize now that my narrow and hyper-competitive focus on running likely amplified my feelings of loss and deep social isolation often experienced by those in persistent pain. These days, I am no longer dependent on running for my happiness. I no longer have all my eggs in that basket. Yes, I’m a runner. But I am also a wife, a mother, and so much more.

Thanks for reading,

Cheryl

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