How to take care of your mental health after spinal cord injury


An injury to your spinal cord changes your life dramatically. Paralysis in both arms and legs forces you to come to terms with your body that no longer functions like it used to. You’ll have to rethink how you go about those daily activities that’s easily taken for granted - how you work, eating dinner, using the bathroom and using technological devices like the phone, tablet or computer. It’s completely normal to react mentally when such major upheavals in your life occur. That’s why it’s very important to be aware and take care of how you’re feeling.

A study shows that adults with spinal cord injuries had a higher incidence, among other things, of adjustment reaction, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, alcohol and drug dependence. Another study found that spinal cord injuries doubled the risk of mental health problems, with 8.4 percent of spinal cord injury survivors experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The different stages of dealing with a spinal cord injury

Learning to live with tetraplegia can be comparable to going through a crisis. A Swedish psychiatrist Johan Cullberg defined a crisis as:

“One can be said to be in a state of mental crisis when one has come to such a place in their life that one’s past experiences and learned ways of reacting are not sufficient for one to understand and mentally master the current situation.”

Cullberg also described a four-stage model of a traumatic crisis in one of his books:

Chock: Being in chock is a very emotional reaction that causes one to act seemingly irrationally. You may feel cool on the outside but be deeply shaken on the inside. Or you may feel like crying, laughing, screaming etcetera. Typically, when one is in a state of chock, it can be hard to remember what happened afterwards. 

Reaction: Now, you’re entering stage 2. This is where you’re slowly beginning to acknowledge your new reality. Being hit by reality can make you question “why me”, and you may feel guilt or blame yourself or others. 

Coping: Those strong emotions begin to feel a little more bearable, and now you can start working through the traumatic experience. You’re getting used to your new life and starting to accept what happened.

Orientation towards the future: The last stage, this is where you start to look ahead. You will seek out new contacts, new interests and you will be able to speak about the incident without getting overwhelmed by it.

Being aware of those natural emotions can help you deal with such a traumatic and life changing thing.

What can I do to take care of my mental health?

Reclaiming digital independence: People suffering from paralysis in arms and hands often rely on help from medical staff and relatives when they want to browse the web, send an email or an SMS or book a doctor’s appointment. It can be frustrating to be dependent on other people when managing such private tasks. Therefore, finding a digital medical device to help you regain your online independence can feel liberating. There are a lot of options such as different eye gazing technologies, speaking softwares and mouth sticks like the TubusOne™.

Lifestyle interventions: A healthy diet, meditation and healthy sleep can help improve your psychological well-being.

Hobbies: Maybe your injury is preventing you from engaging in activities like you used to before. If you enjoyed playing football or handball, try to find other ways to still be involved with the sport. Maybe you can be a coach, or maybe you can handle administration tasks for the football team you used to play for. You can also take the time to find new hobbies. Either way, having hobbies in your life that you’re passionate about can improve your mental health.

Psychotherapy: Therapy is all about helping people out of the difficult periods of life, and it can help you move on when life hurts or seems meaningless. It teaches you coping skills and offers you a safe space to vent.

Support groups: Nobody, even your friends or family, truly knows what it’s like to suffer a spinal cord injury and deal with the aftermath of it. Therefore, it can be helpful to talk about your struggles with people who are going through some of the same issues like you.