The Importance of Chill

I broke my foot this fall.

Actually, I found out that my foot was broken this fall, but there’s a good chance that it had been broken for at least a few months before that.

Stress fractures are tricky things, since they don’t show up well on X-rays or generate the same symptoms that an acute fracture does. They don’t bruise, they don’t swell, and they’re not usually excruciatingly painful to walk on, so you spend six months wondering why this annoying pain won’t go away until you eventually get fed up and go to a doctor – fully expecting to be told that you’re fine and just being overdramatic – and end up in a boot for the next month because it turns out you’ve been breaking yourself in increments and really need to stop.

That was my experience, at least.

After four weeks of clunking around in the boot and being forcibly barred from my preferred form of stress relief (martial arts), I was positively vibrating with eagerness to get on with my life. At my follow-up appointment, I asked the doctor if I could go back to karate that week and was met with a withering look. “No,” she said slowly, as though I were an idiot for asking (which I was). “You’re still healing. You need to take it easy for a little bit.”

Now, I can’t speak for anyone else, but whenever someone tells me to “take it easy,” my immediate reaction is to mentally crack my knuckles and think ‘it’s time to climb a mountain and fight seven men.’ Being told to take it easy awakens some deep-seated compulsion to prove that I don’t need to take it easy because I am invincible, but that’s not how this works. No matter how strong you are, or how high your pain tolerance is, it is a simple fact of nature that healing takes time.

I know this rationally, as I’m sure many of us do, but it’s very hard to look at yourself and see someone who is deserving of that time. It’s tempting to view our responsibilities as more important than our bodies, and our commitments as more important than our well-being, but that’s a fallacy. The problem is that we’ve been socialized into believing that productivity is everything, and that if you can’t contribute then you don’t have worth. We’ve been taught that resting equals weakness and that “toughing it out” is the most desirable way to deal with any problem, but those views are very short-sighted.   As I’ve mentioned before, health is a measure of our ability to reach our potential. If we don’t take care of our health, then the rest of our lives become a great deal more complicated. It logically follows, then, that our health needs to be our first priority.

So now we have two pieces of information: our health comes first, and healing takes time.

You know what that means? It’s time to chill.

“But wait!” you cry. “What does chilling accomplish, beyond letting me slide ever farther behind in my list of tasks and responsibilities?”

I’m glad you asked.

Chill accomplishes many things – so many, in fact, that I think chill is overall a more productive member of society than I am.   In the most general sense, chilling ensures that your body has the energy it needs to repair itself. The processes that constitute healing – bone fusing, muscle regeneration, skin replacement, and immune system activities – require far more energy than your body normally expends while at rest, so you will likely feel tired while recovering from an illness or injury (Apell et al). Instead of fighting that feeling, however, consider it the biological equivalent of your phone’s low battery warning: It’s a request for more energy, a friendly reminder that your body is very busy doing important things and needs you to nap for a little bit.

Maybe you feel pretty okay, still. Maybe you’re the sort of person who never feels tired, or is already so tired all the time that a slight increase in fatigue doesn’t register, or maybe you’ve replaced all of the oxygen in your blood with caffeine so it doesn’t even matter, but regardless, you need to chill. If you’re hurt or sick, you need to chill. I’m not saying you should drop out of school and quit your job every time you sprain your ankle or get a cold, but you need to be aware of how you budget your energy. By using all of your energy on non-essential activities, you’re taking away energy from the healing processes that really need to happen, and you’ll be dealing with that sickness or injury for a lot longer than you want to be.

Think of it this way: chill is a significant investment in your future health.

Because we tend to feel better long before we are better, it’s easy to stop taking proper precautions and throw ourselves back into daily life before it’s entirely advisable to do so. By assuming that we’re fully healthy before we really are, however, we put ourselves at risk. Not only is it easier to hurt ourselves while we’re in this state of semi-disrepair, but it’s easier to hurt ourselves more seriously, in ways that will take far more time and money to fix than the original injury.

A stress fracture usually heals on its own in four to six weeks, assuming adequate rest and nutrition. But if you turn that stress fracture into something worse, you’d better believe it’s going to be a longer and more expensive recovery than you’re willing to commit to. By preventing that secondary injury, you’re saving yourself a lot of trouble for the relatively low cost of a few more days of bench time, and you’re also ensuring that once you’re back at your activities, you’re back for good.

And that doesn’t just go for physical problems: mental health is just as important, and emotional stress can act much the same way that physical stress does. Chronic stress actually does have a physiological impact on your body – it can weaken your immune system and put you at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and heart disease (Weiss), and it also interferes with the cellular processes of injury healing (Guo). Even temporary stressors can have long-term impacts. It’s important to remember that even though mental illness is technically in your head, your symptoms aren’t imaginary. Depressive episodes and anxiety/panic attacks are often physically exhausting, and rest is a vital component of recovery.   Limiting stress while recovering from any health problem, whether illness, injury, or emotional disturbance, will reduce recovery time and return you to a more complete state of health.

I know it’s not easy, since we’re all so busy all of the time, and I know that we live in a society that defines our value by our productivity. That’s why it’s important to advocate for yourself, and for your health. Talk to your teachers, your coaches, and your parents – explain to them that you’re recovering, and you need some time. Ask about extending deadlines for assignments, staying out of practice for another week or two, and maybe a temporary reduction in household responsibilities, if at all possible.

It’s far, far better to be seen as lazy than to live with pain, be it physical or emotional.

So take some time, and take some chill. It’s worth it, I promise.

After four weeks of no karate, two weeks of restricted training, a handful of physical therapy sessions, and a sprinkle of patience, I’m back on my normal training schedule. The pain I’d been dealing with for months is nowhere to be seen, and I’m working my way back to my former level of fitness. Not only that, but I competed in a national tournament in early November and brought home two medals. I won’t be climbing a mountain and fighting seven men, but I will be returning to the lifestyle that I’ve chosen for myself, and that’s what matters.

-Anna Burns


Guo, S., and L.A. DiPietro. 2010. “Factors Affecting Wound Healing.” Journal of Dental Research 89 (3):219–29. doi:10.1177/0022034509359125.

  1. Peter Apell et al. 2012. “Physics of Wound Healing I: Energy Considerations.” Cornell University Library.

Weiss, Gregory L., and Lynne E. Lonnquist. “Social Stress.” The Sociology of Health,

Healing, and Illness. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2009. 107 – 108. Print.

 

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