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Mind Over Matter: Boost your mood to speed your recovery

William Stearns By William Stearns

Mother and son in bed with flowers

Some people come through health challenges feeling more focused and optimistic than before — but that doesn’t mean recovery was easy for them. Patients are often surprised and frustrated by changes to their mobility and independence, however temporary. “The experience often creates a sense of helplessness and vulnerability,” says Hyong Un, MD, chief psychiatric officer for Aetna Behavioral Health. “Plus, it can put pressure on relationships, finances and the workplace.”

Learning how to cope with your recovery mentally and emotionally is a crucial part of the healing process. If you’re facing an injury or illness that turns your routine and your mood upside down, read on for ways to take care of your whole self.

Zero in on what’s bothering you.

When you’re in recovery, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. It can be hard to see there are things you can do to feel better. Are you feeling lonely, defeated, bored to tears — or all of the above? What physical limits bother you the most? For instance, is getting dressed or preparing a meal suddenly more complicated? Are you temporarily unable to drive or go up and down stairs? Merely identifying negative feelings saps them of some of their power, and prepares you to take the next steps.

Speak your mind to help your body heal.

“Express yourself” is sound advice. But when you’re in recovery, it’s essential. Translating hazy feelings into words creates some healthy distance between you and negative emotions. Understanding that “you are not your feelings” can also be empowering. Here’s a trick: Write down a story that describes your pain, frustration and hopes as if you were observing someone else — use “he” or “she” rather than “I” or “me.” One study found that this exercise not only brightened people’s emotional outlook, but also improved their physical recovery.

If you’re more comfortable talking things through, don’t be shy about reaching out to friends and relatives. Resist the urge to downplay how blue or angry or scared you really are. The more honest you are, the better.

Don’t be shy when asking for support.

Call that old schoolmate who makes you laugh, or the sibling who always encourages you to stay focused on better times ahead. Be clear about what you need and when. You’re not being demanding or needy — you’re taking charge of your health.

Even with a strong network of loved ones, you might benefit from speaking to a professional counselor. This is especially important if you worry that you’ll never get better or you want to stay in bed all day even when you’re well enough to be up and about. Your health insurance may also offer free emotional support by phone. Online tools like Aetna’s Mindcheck can help you keep tabs on how you’re feeling and suggest next steps.

Other places to find support: A nearby house of worship can arrange for a spiritual advisor to visit you at home. If you’d like to speak to someone who went through a similar illness with good results, your doctor may be able to put you in touch with a fellow patient. Support groups are also available for a wide variety of health challenges. Ask your doctor or search online for in-person and online options.

Treat your senses for whole-body therapy.

While you are healing, be good to your whole self, body and soul. This is especially important if your injury or illness has decreased your mobility. Experts recommend a few simple tricks:

  • Music is a powerful tool. “Find your own personal anthem,” suggests Robert Naceanceno, a counselor at Resources for Living, an Aetna behavioral wellness service. “The right song can make you feel powerful.” Inspirational playlists are easy to discover on streaming music services like Spotify or Apple Music: Look for “Relax and Unwind,” “Confidence Boost,” and “Feel Good Indie.” Or create your own custom soundtrack featuring songs that brighten your mood and make you want to sing along.
  • Guided meditation can help you recover faster. Studies suggest that regular meditation can help reduce pain, improve sleep, and manage the symptoms of many conditions such as asthma and cancer. Simply visualizing positive experiences or favorite places may do the trick. Mobile apps like Calm (Free) and Buddhify ($4.99 for iPhone; $2.99 for Android) offer guided meditations, soothing nature sounds, and music. 
  • Fragrance is a proven mood booster. Studies show that essential oil aromatherapy is a safe and inexpensive way to reduce pain and lift your spirits. Popular scents for therapeutic use include bergamot, lavender, peppermint and citrus. But let your personal preference be your guide. 

Whether you’re recovering from a temporary injury or a major illness, remember to make healing your primary goal. Be prepared to have bad days, even as good health returns. “Accepting that recovery happens in small steps is critical,” says Dr. Un. “This way you can be engaged in your treatment and actively involved in growing stronger.”

About the author

William Stearns is a career newshound who has given some of his best years to organizations like ABC News, NBC News, Time and Sports Illustrated.  He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son, who regularly remind him that this is the year he’s going to get more sleep and exercise every day (rather than just talk about it).