Adjusting to a New Physical Disability
Updated: Mar 5
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
The cause can be from a range of things: a car accident; a work accident; a sports accident; a diving accident; a fall; natural degeneration of the body with age leading to mobility impairments; a tumor or infection or stroke of the spinal cord; being a victim of violence; having an amputation; or many other causes.
No matter the cause, it’s clearly an extremely difficult process to adjust to having a physical disability. Learning how to adjust can take quite some time and is not a straightforward path. Everyone copes differently and no two journeys look exactly alike.
If you have a new physical disability and are understandably struggling to cope, it may be helpful to keep a few things in mind as you try to figure out this new world you are in.
Take the time you need
Adjusting to a new disability will take a very long time. There’s no telling how long it may be until it begins to feel like a “new normal” for you or until you begin feeling like “you” again.
It doesn’t happen in a day, a month, or a year. It’s an ongoing process that evolves as you continue to evolve and learn how to live in what may feel like a new body or a body that isn’t yours. Give yourself the time and space you need to come to terms with all of the major changes that have happened in your life.
Reach out to your closest family and friends for support
This is a very challenging time in your life. You may have a few very close people- your partner, your sibling, your parent, your best friend — who you want to get comfort from in your time of need. Be sure to connect with them for support.
Now more than ever is a time to lean on those family members and friends who will be there for you no matter what. Your closest social network can help you when you need to cry, to laugh, or to just sit in silence together with a supportive companion.
After a new disability, you may not want to talk to every single well-meaning person who reaches out to you to express how concerned they are for you — and that’s ok.
Permit yourself to not feel like you have to respond to every person right away. They will understand if you need time alone to process your thoughts, feelings, and emotions through this phase. You can connect with them when you feel ready to talk.
You are your best advocate and you know your body best. Ask your doctor, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, personal support worker, nurse, and other health professionals involved in your care any questions you have.
You might have questions about your physical disability diagnosis, what your recovery process is expected to look like, how much recovery you may have in the short term and the long term, what you should prepare for in the future to be as healthy as possible while living with a physical disability, how to best take care of yourself and your new needs, and so on.
Ask a family member or friend to help you think of questions or support you in asking these questions if needed. And, if something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s ok to ask the professional to explain it again or in another way.
Focus on the here and now
Your mind might be racing right now. Will I ever be able to walk again? Will I be able to take care of myself? How will I get into my house/apartment or bathroom? Can I go back to work? Who will help me if I can’t do everything on my own?….
Give yourself some space to slow down. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. You will get more information as time goes on about what to expect and what to plan for.
Right now, try to focus on understanding what has happened to you, getting used to how your body feels and moves, and exploring small, simple goals to start working towards.
Go with the flow
You may have heard this saying before: it’s often easier to go with the flow than to fight against it!
It’s common to have times when you have made solid progress only to then have a setback that feels like all the hard work you did has been undone or lost.
Having a mindset where you try to be flexible with and adapt to changes as they occur, as hard as that might be, could help with your adjustment.
Understand that there will be “good” and “bad” days
Recognizing that there will be “good” days, where you feel like you are handling things well, and “bad” days, where you feel sad or angry or frustrated, is expected.
Permitting yourself to deal with the ups and downs and being compassionate towards yourself can help you cope.
Think about -- and try out -- your favorite activities and interests in a new way
It may be hard to imagine this right now, and it may take some time for you to get to this point, but having a physical disability does not mean that you cannot enjoy activities you used to love. It does mean you may need to consider a different way of doing them.
Do you love sports? Maybe there is a way you can look into adapted sports, like wheelchair basketball, for example. Do you love to write or read but have a limited ability to use your hands? There may be occupational therapy services or assistive technology services that might be able to help you figure out how to use a phone, iPad or tablet, or computer in a way that works best for you.
Think of activities you are interested in and speak with your healthcare team for ideas on how you might be able to make this happen. There’s no need to rush into this though. You may need time before you try something you love in a new way, which can be an adjustment in itself. Again, give yourself the time you need and explore these ideas when you are ready.
Work towards long term goals
It’s good to have goals and dreams for the future. Perhaps you want to be able to eventually walk with a walker or a cane. Your doctor and healthcare team may talk about whether that is a realistic future goal for you given the current research, medical knowledge, and your healthcare team’s past experience with patients with a similar disability diagnosis and health profile to you.
Maybe you want to cook for yourself or learn how to direct others to prepare meals just the way you like it, if you can’t do it for yourself. Or perhaps you want to go back to work or school and focus on building on your skills and knowledge in a topic you are passionate about but might need some accessibility modifications. The options are endless.
Talk with your healthcare team to see what may be feasible for you and begin thinking about what steps you can take to reach these goals.
Even if it seems like you may never be able to do some of the things you want to be able to do, it is always important to not give up on yourself.
Hope is what keeps us going and encourages us to move forward. We may need to somehow learn to accept what our current situation is while we keep aiming to reach our goals and what we want for our future.
We can move along parallel paths where we do what we can right now and continue working towards our dreams. Stay hopeful.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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