Creative Ways to Free the Mind

Posted by Timothy Ziegler on May 26th 2022

Creative Ways to Free the Mind

This week I thought I’d take a step back from the physical aspects of recovering from a season-ending injury and talk a bit more about the mental side of things, and how keeping a positive outlook on events that challenge your mental toughness can in turn help a lot with not only feeling better in the moment, but also creating a better mental environment for your brain to function in during day-to-day life. To preface this article, I would like to say that I am not a mental health professional of any type. These are just my experiences and the approach that I took, and what I think others may be able to take away from my healing journey to help themselves in a positive way. There is no one correct procedure or method to go about keeping yourself in a positive mental state, and different things will work for different people. As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, I thought it would be a good time to share my thoughts.

To give sufficient background explaining why I had such a harsh mental battle during the first few weeks following my injury, I will start a little over a week before Christmas Day of 2021, which was the day that I severed my Lisfranc tendon in my left foot while forejumping for ski jumping Olympic Trials. As simply as I can put it, I very suddenly found myself no longer in the relationship that I had been in for the past three years, with little to no explanation as to why it had ended. I was devastated. It was the first time I had had to deal with the complex emotions that come with a breakup, and initially I was absolutely crushed and downtrodden, and while unable to properly process my feelings I kind of shut down for a few hours. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized that no good could come from just sitting around and incapacitating myself. I picked my confused-self up, and rather than listening to my mind, which wanted me to stay where I was and dissolve, I listened to my body, which was telling me to go for a ski.

Skiing, running, biking, or anything outdoors where you can zone out your thoughts and instead focus on the rhythm of the activity you’re doing has always been my primary way to free up those confused or negative thoughts that get stuck in the nooks and crannies of my brain. Such activities give you time to not have to think about anything. Once you get over the first 15 minutes or so and your body settles in, the movements become second nature, and you can just enjoy where you’re going or what you’re doing or the landscape around you. You can think about every type of rock your shoes crunch on, every shade of green on the foliage you’re passing, every individually perfect crystal of snow you’re gliding over. You can leave everything behind that was stressing you out and just be outside, enjoying whatever it is you’re doing, and that’s the most important thing in my opinion. Getting outside and going for skis is largely what helped me maintain my mental health fairly well for that first week and a half, and I think that trying hard to keep a positive state of mind is what really kept it from dive bombing later on.

Now, I know that a lot of you are probably scoffing at this, because relationships ending are absolutely just a part of life. You live it, you hurt, but you get through it, and supposedly come out stronger. But the reason that I brought it up is because I already had that load of thoughts in my head while I was forejumping for the Olympic Trials. I don’t think that it affected my performance by any means, it wasn’t the reason for crashing and hurting my foot, but nevertheless it was still riding in the back of my mind the entire time. The reason that it’s so important to the story is because a week and a half after the crash, I was back in Michigan and was informed that the injury in my foot required surgery to fix, and that I was to immediately cease any kind of standing activity more intense than walking. And just like that, my mental release of running or skiing, the outlet that I had found worked so well for relaxing my mind, was gone. On top of it, the thoughts of having surgery for the first time, especially such a specialty procedure to repair a Lisfranc displacement fracture, were suddenly compounding on the already muddled mess that I had in my head, and this led to a whole new chapter of dealing with stuff in my head.

In an instant, I was hurtling towards the inevitable fact that I wouldn’t be able to walk on two legs for about three months, and that I wouldn’t be able to run or ski for over six months. Not only was that winter season gone before it had started, but also the summer season of training wasn’t going to happen. I came to the realization that it would be well over half a year before I would be able to access, comfortably and reliably, the outlet that helped me maintain my mental health. That was a scary prospect. All of a sudden, I was being asked to completely reevaluate and change how I kept myself happy, stable, and healthy for the entire first half of 2022. I began looking for other ways to calm my mind, things I could do to keep my brain activity from brimming over, but not overexert myself so that I could still heal quickly and properly. While I had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do anything without the assistance of crutches, and eventually the iWalk hands free crutch, it didn’t make it any easier in terms of finding things that met the twin goals of being productive while also helping my mental health.

It’s times like this when you just have to try things, go and do stuff, reconnect with old friends or work to make new ones. Right after finding out I needed surgery, one of my friends who I hadn’t really seen in over a year insisted I go and get coffee and just chat about things, and actively talking through all my thoughts helped me so much. Another thing I tried, thanks to the recommendation of my brother, was just writing everything out in a notebook. It doesn’t matter if it comes out as a jumbled mess or if it’s a novel because you can choose what you do with it. If it would help to use that as a memoir of your feelings, go for it. I personally just opened it whenever I was particularly confused or sad about something and had been all day, and after writing it all down right before going to bed, it seemed to just flow off the top of the brain and it wasn’t as much of an issue the following morning. I was also able to focus on strengthening my core, which was something I had wanted to do for years but never gave myself the time to properly focus on the way I needed to build the muscle. Though it was not even a close replacement to the freedom that was normal skiing, the SkiErg helped keep my upper body somewhat in skiing shape both before and after surgery. It really is nothing compared to the feeling of gliding over the snow, and it didn’t have the same option of a total mental release for me, but it was still something, and having something at a time when I wasn’t sure of anything was very helpful to me.

But probably the best thing that stuck with me in my head was something that my parents have been telling me for years: to go into things with a positive attitude, no matter the circumstances. The example my dad always used was from his whitewater kayaking experience in college, “If you go into that hole thinking you’re going to flip and die, there’s a good chance you’re going to flip and die.” The key is to visualize a positive outcome to get you downstream safely. It is by no means an easy thing to do, to go into every situation with a positive attitude, but even the presence of a smile, the thought of it providing a new and exciting or useful experience, or having a laugh because you just find it silly can be the difference between something very negative, and something at least a bit positive. When I was younger, I’ll admit there were a fair few times that I didn’t want to do something for one reason or another, whether it was to play in an orchestra I thought I wasn’t good enough for and wanted to skulk in the corner during, or getting up at 6:00 am to go to school after getting home at 2:00 in the morning after a Nordic combined event. My dad always reminded me to go into it with a smile and to think of something positive in the situation. And as it turns out, when you do that, it tends to be easier to find the positives and enjoy yourself.

These things all in combination helped to keep my head above water despite all the negative thoughts and feelings that were near-constantly trying to drag my mind under. What helped even more after surgery was going back to my ski team’s house on campus and being welcomed so warmly upon my arrival. My caring teammates played a large part in keeping me level headed and on the road to recovery while trying to balance the new task of “doing school” with a foot that I wasn’t allowed to step on.

I’m very grateful for all of the wonderful people who have wished me well and supported me while I’ve been on this confusing journey. I appreciate the advice I’ve been given, and that I have generally been able to overcome the mental barriers that I have encountered. It’s not something that everyone experiences the same way, and this is merely a documentation of my thoughts and experiences that I want to put out here in the hope that they may be entertaining, thought-provoking, or useful to someone going through any kind of situation where mental health is on the line. You are not alone. Physical activity, family, and friends can help free the mind.