Learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury or onset of a long-term condition can take time and involve many mixed emotions. Your body has changed. Forever. You remember what you used to be able to do. And your body has that memory too.

So you go to move in a way you want without thinking because it’s what your body does. But your body doesn’t comply. Or it does and you feel a lot of pain. You may feel betrayed by your body; you can’t trust it anymore. You may feel a sense of loss missing what you were once able to do and even feel anger.

I know the feeling. At times, it really sucks. I have osteoarthritis in both knees. Learning to trust my body again and what it can do now has been an ongoing journey. But I had a realisation about it whilst on holiday that has been so freeing, I want to share it with you. Keep reading to learn what it was, how it helped me and may help you.

Fear can get in the way of learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury

That was the first realisation. I had assumed my knees were no longer capable of hikes which involve a walk up a steep hill (steep to me, maybe not to others). I have missed hiking over the years. I used to do a fair amount of it when living in Central Asia where mountains were on my doorstep.

Central Asia Almaty Kazakhstan

Mountains outside Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo taken by B Babcock circa 1997.

This fear came about for several reasons. The long-term prognosis for my knees isn’t great based on the doctor’s verdict. I had become more tentative when I walk due to often feeling pain that can come on unexpectedly and for no obvious reason. So I take great care on uneven ground and when there is a high step. This is me being careful; I want to preserve my knees for as long as I can.

Yet I feel that carefulness morphed into a fear that wasn’t helpful. I feel at times I have chosen to let the fear hold me back, to give in and say no to activities rather than trying them to see what my body is capable of.

While on holiday, I had to face that fear and deal with it

I signed up my other half and I for a guided walk of the Mach na Bo (Plain of the Cattle) on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. The walk was deemed easy to moderate and would take 4 hours. I explained that I have osteoarthritis, checked if there would be any ascents and what they were like. I felt satisfied I would be able to do the walk and my husband and I would have a lovely time.

Just in case, I decided to bring the husband’s walking sticks.

Thank the gods I did.

It wasn’t until we had walked up the valley – an easy walk where I wasn’t using the walking sticks – that the ascent ahead of me became visible.

The ascent of the mountain looked too high for me

I expressed my concern. The guide was lovely and encouraging. My other half easily scrambled up like a mountain goat. I felt envious of his ability. But also surprised and proud knowing the health issues he has experienced. He was my example to aspire to on the walk. If he could do it, I was going to as well. (There is also a healthy sense of competition between my other half and I.)

I took out the walking sticks and moved slowly and very very carefully. Looking over the edge, I could see that if I were to fall, it would be down a steep slope. I did not fancy that and felt resolve kicking in. Wanting to walk in beautiful nature, I continued the walk.

I got to the top. The ascent was approximately 330 meters. It may not be a lot for some people but to me it felt like a 1,000. I was elated with my accomplishment! (still am)

facing fear and trusting my body

Making it to the top of the hill on the Mach na Bo walk. You see that river along the valley floor? We walked along the trail next to it. Photo taken by the other half 2017.

Support is crucial when overcoming fear and learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury

I could not have done that walk without those walking sticks. They enabled me to such a degree I could not believe! They took the pressure off my knees. I am still amazed at how much that simple piece of equipment helped me. I had no pain in my knees the next day!

The guide was incredibly supportive and helpful in such a friendly manner. He encouraged me, often happily saying, ‘Ah, don’t worry about that ascent. It’s not very long! We’ll be there just around that corner!’ Then proceeded to tell a story from Celtic mythology in relation to the area we were walking through.

My other half was patient. That 4 hour walk took us 7 hours.

Willingness to ask and use support is important too

A willingness to ask for and use support, whether it is asking someone to offer their arm or using mobility aids, can get your farther than you thought possible.

But I know you may hate asking for help or using equipment. It can feel like you are giving in to the illness or injury. You miss your independence. You may feel that everyone is looking at you as you move along with your walking frame/sticks/wheelchair. It is a common reaction to your situation and understandable.

So many clients have spoken to me about how things changed for them when they learned how and when to ask for help and use support. That willingness can be developed over time. If that is something you want to explore further, I’ve written a series of four articles about why asking for help can be so hard.

mobility aids give you support

What the support of walking sticks enabled me to do. Photo taken by B Babcock 2017.

Keep fear in check by minding your thought patterns

We get so used to thinking, ‘My body can’t do this anymore…I am afraid of…’, I think sometimes we can lull ourselves into a trap of vicious circle thinking. The focus is on what we cannot do and possibly fear to such a degree there is no room or energy left to focus on what we can do or might be able to do.

I realised after that walk I had gotten myself into that place. I just assumed I could no longer hike up a hill without even attempting to hike up a hill. That fear was having a protective function – maintain my knees for as long as possible. But I had let too much fear creep in and take hold so I was making my decisions from that place. I didn’t learn I was mistaken until I was in the situation.

To double check if you are making decisions from a place of too much unhealthy fear, listen to your inner self-talk. If hear yourself saying something like, ‘I can’t do this, can’t do that…, My body is no longer capable…, Oh, that is not possible for me!’ stop and ask yourself these questions.

trust your body after a serious illness or injury

Keep the fear in check to help you learn to trust your body after a serious illness or injury. Photo taken by B Babcock 2017 at Annascaul Lake looking back at the descent.

So Barbara, are you going to walk up Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike or Snowdon?

No, that would be way too much too soon. For now, I will go on these monthly walks a friend organises. I will use the walking sticks. In between those walks, I will continue to do easy walks in my local neighbourhood. A few times a year I will try a more challenging walk. Having a go, building up bit by bit, checking in with my fears, and asking for help will be my way forward in learning to trust my body.

What’s it like for you?

Have you overcome a fear as you learned to live with a changed body due to a serious illness/injury? What enabled you to do that? What worked and did not work for you as you learned to trust your body after a serious illness or injury?

If you are learning to live with the changes in your body due to a serious health issue and would like support to manage the fears and do what you want to be doing, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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P.S. A big shout out and thanks to Kevin O’Shea of Celtic Nature Walking Tours for his excellent guidance and support during our Mach na Bo walk!

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

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