During college on a visit to Cape Cod with friends, we found ourselves running down the beach and jumping into the ocean. That doesn't sound crazy until I tell you it was January first, and the temperature was 44 degrees.
In the photo our indelible joy is frozen in time as we pulled and pushed in the surf. At the time I was a full scholarship runner at the top women's distance program in the country. But where I actually found myself was at a program of coaching changes, teammates transferring, and general mismanagement. Things weren't going well. I was confused and down at the same time that adolescence was slipping away and the open world of wonder was right there. But this crystal day in the icy Atlantic lifted my heart and allowed me to feel in ways that were home--powerful body, zest for life, mentally strong, me. It was a touchstone moment against the uncontrollable pitfalls of college sports. I was happy. That whole trip was the reset I needed to get through the winter. Knowing a bit of the science why moments like this buoy us through difficult or sad times is a vital tool when facing your own setbacks.
The darkest days following a poor performance or an injury can be the hardest. Besides the physical or emotional pain, navigating next steps or the uncertainty of return-to-action can feel overwhelming. But let’s face it, not being able to do your sport, or do it well, is like having your heart broken. Sadness and depression follow as you grieve the loss of something that made you happy, including your sense of self.
By understanding the brain’s happy chemicals and how to spark them, athletes dealing with a setback can ride the emotional waves each day surfing above (not submerging under) the weight of their disappointment.
These happy hormones–Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphin–are stimulated in your brain by different experiences. When you cope better with an injury, you reduce stress hormones and sleep better. Better sleep accelerates wound healing, bone repair, and muscle growth, so it’s a win-win.
Many of the ideas listed below actually fire-up multiple happy hormones at once. Spending time with your main squeeze can douse you in all of them. See how many ways you can keep surfing.
Dopamine - The habit-maker
Do something nice for yourself such as get your nails done or your hair cut, treat yourself to delicious food, call a Warm Line (look it up), learn an instrument, make art, celebrate rehab gains. Be careful about relying on dopamine-promoting sources such as coffee/alcohol, social media, or screen time. These can be harmful in excess.
An anxious client felt more empowered after writing a Confidence Resume. Like a job resume, a Confidence Resume is a chronological record of your successful performances, the times you navigated challenges or developed strengths like leadership and patience. Take it year by year for the past 4 years or so. You’ll feel a lot better reminding yourself of your awesomeness.
Oxytocin - The hug hormone
These are actions that help you feel connected to others. Hang out with teammates, play with your dog or cat, hold a baby, hold hands, hug, make romance, get a massage, talk to a sport psychology consultant or therapist, have a movie watch party, give someone a compliment or high five.
A cyclist client post-knee surgery took a day to craft thank you emails to everyone who had been bringing meals. During stress fracture recovery, a running client created an anonymous injury blog to chart her journey and connect with others.
Serotonin - The peace maker Meditate, deep breaths, sit in the sun, do yoga, sauna, hot tub, swim, take a nap, be in nature, listen to relaxing music, get a foot rub, burn incense or diffuse lavender oil.
A ballet dancer struggling with motivation began spending time in a nearby park, which re-awakened her love of nature. She was able to gain perspective about the bigger picture of life and her identity. She realized the parts of her that had been put on hold to pursue dancing. She no longer felt trapped by dance, but that she had choices.
Endorphin - The natural pain killer
Seek out funny experiences that cause deep belly laughs (comedies, silly social media reels, time with friends), work out, cross train, eat dark chocolate, try cold-plunging or an icy shower, smell an essential oil like peppermint, sing karaoke, dance, plan something to look forward to like watching a sports game or rocking out at a concert.
A swimmer recovering from a shoulder injury found that challenging herself daily with a cold shower helped stimulate an invigorating feeling of positivity and mental and physical fortitude.
As we all know, there is no magic kiss to make injuries or setbacks better. After all, we’re human, and our expectations have been interrupted. Look for the upside of that penny. Between all of your ruminating or rehab, happy-hormone-sparking acts are key. Your whole being will thank you.
Meg Waldron has her MS in Sport Psychology and is happy devoting her life to helping athletes rediscover joy and express their agency through sport.