​What to Do When Pre-Injury Coping Skills No Longer Work

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on February 08, 2021 # Health, Lifestyle

By guest blogger Lauren Presutti

Stress is unavoidable in life. We all experience it from time to time. For those with and without paralysis, learning effective ways to cope with stress is fundamental to creating meaningful, fulfilling lives. Most of us learn effective strategies for coping with stress gradually over our lifetime. We might learn how to cope with disappointment in high school and then utilize the same coping strategy when we are in college later on. Over time, we naturally pick up different coping tools and we find what works well for us. In other words, we create our own internal toolbox and we pull from it whenever needed.two women sitting in wheelchairs sitting on dock in front of water

But for individuals who experience a traumatic event, such as those diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, they might encounter the sudden realization that their coping skills (which previously worked for managing stress prior to the trauma) are now falling short when grappling with the heightened stress of trauma. Shortly after the injury, individuals are faced with accepting physical limitations, adjusting to a wheelchair, navigating new barriers, managing health care appointments, and countless other considerations as they adjust to a new normal. Similar for caregivers or loved ones, adjusting to a new normal can feel overwhelming. This makes it critical in the early days after injury to develop some new coping skills that will prove useful for the days ahead.

It might feel like learning everything all over again. It might feel like you weren’t prepared for this. Give yourself permission to express those feelings. Whatever emotional reactions that you have are valid. Nobody can prepare for a spinal cord injury and nobody is expected to naturally have the coping skills necessary to manage it effectively.

I want to remind everyone who feels unprepared for ANY paralysis-related stress – whether you are newly injured or are grappling with persistent barriers over a long period of time – that it is okay to admit to feeling unprepared. Nobody expects you to have all the tools necessary to cope with these complex experiences. Especially if you did not have any experience with the disability community prior to your spinal cord injury, there is no reason to expect yourself to know how to navigate your challenges.

If this sounds like you, consider any of the following strategies:

Focus on processing your trauma.

Processing your trauma means talking about it with people who make you feel safe. In the beginning, you might struggle to articulate what happened on the day of injury, how you experienced it, what you remember, how you felt about it, or how you feel now. It’s hard to put these things into words. Remember that it’s okay to practice sharing your story in different ways. Communicating about your trauma helps you cognitively process the details, which is important because it can help you foster greater acceptance, healing, and internal peace.

Be open to different ways of coping.

Learning new ways of coping will be necessary if your previous coping skills fall short. People learn new ways of coping in all different ways, but some methods may include talking to a mental health therapist, talking with others in the spinal cord injury community, reading books or websites about spinal cord injury recovery, or any other method that exposes your mind to new ideas that you have not considered before. Be patient with yourself! Some things may take time to learn. For example, prior to the injury, you might have coped with stress by jogging or riding your bike, but with paralysis, you will be learning different ways to use your body in recreation. With some adaptation, you should be able to build on your prior coping skills (for example, outdoor enjoyment as a means to cope with stress) but now engage in this type of coping in more accessible ways.

Ask for help when needed.

Allow yourself the time and space to ask for help and lean on others who have been in your shoes before. It’s important to ask questions and not be afraid to speak up about what you are struggling with. Some people struggle to be vulnerable because you might fear being inaccurately portrayed as weak, but I want you to know that asking for help is sometimes the strongest thing that you can do. Whether you live with paralysis or have a loved one with paralysis, your trauma is valid and it’s okay to let others know you are struggling to cope with it. It gets better!

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit www.riveroakspsychology.com and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.