Like so many people around the world, my husband and I battled Covid for several weeks. We’re both healthy with no pre-existing conditions except being over 65, but it was a tough couple of weeks when we both ended up with pneumonia as well.
We’re back to normal now, but I found the psychological aspect of recovery to be both really interesting and really relevant to how an individual’s mindset can impact both daily choices and recovery from severe health challenges.
In my work, I’ve explored a large body of research on the psychology of healthy aging – things like what drives health beliefs, behaviors and outcomes – and, more recently, how perceptions impact recovery from acute illness or injury.
One really eye-opening Harvard University study demonstrated that people with a positive aging mindset were 44% more likely to recover fully from a severe illness or injury than those with a negative aging mindset. That’s a pretty large advantage – one I certainly want working for rather than against me!
A Health Setback
For us, Covid was like having a really bad flu that just kept lingering on and on. As many people have experienced, the fatigue was relentless so that each day became primarily about getting through it without doing anything taxing that could make it worse.
With very little energy or motivation, my husband and I spent most of the days sleeping, watching TV, or reading. Even though I had a lot of office work to do, I simply couldn’t muster the mental or physical energy to do it!
Psychology of Doubt
After about 2 weeks of being ill with no signs of recovery, the on-going media attention to the worst-case scenario (death statistics) brought feelings of vulnerability and even fear. We’ve always been strong and healthy and were knocked pretty flat. Being In our mid-60s was our only risk factor but we started to wonder if we would recover!
At that point, I started doing some research and learned that the recovery rate from Covid for people with no pre-existing health conditions ranges from 97 to 99.75% (CDC, WebMD). That’s no comfort to those who have lost loved ones, but it allowed us both to consciously stay focused on the probability of recovery rather than possibility of the worst outcome.
Path to Recovery
Even though the intense illness only lasted three weeks, it became obvious how easy it would be to stay in a mindset of just “making it through the day” even when we started feeling better. This mindset was reinforced after a couple of false starts when we would feel better and do too much, or one of us had a chore to do – like tromp through the snow to feed horses – and then would end up back in bed.
Once we genuinely started feeling better, we were both leery of repeating that mistake. Out of necessity, we had settled into a very sedentary pattern, and I had to remind myself of advice I often give in healthy aging seminars – don’t let a health setback become a new health set-point.
It took conscious effort, lots of self-talk, and consistent action each day to prevent our new pattern – conserving energy by doing just enough to get by – from becoming a lifestyle habit.
Aging and Illness/Disability
Experiencing how susceptible I was to the 18-month narrative around Covid re-enforced my belief in how easily negative “aging scripts” – the stereotypes we’ve been exposed to over our lifetimes – can be internalized to drive our personal responses to illness, injury, or functional issues.
Health challenges combined with an internalized aging narrative can act as a directive to withdraw from challenges and make life smaller. I use directive because I’ve observed that this reaction is often not so much a conscious choice as it is a surrender to ageist programming.
Let me be clear – I fully support anyone’s right to make whatever choice is right for them about responding to a health challenge. I just encourage individuals not to make long-term choices based on “survival mode” strategies ingrained during a crisis.
Instead of allowing a health setback to automatically become a new health set-point, consider consciously seeking the fullest recovery possible – regardless of age – and maximizing adaptive strategies before determining what’s possible for your life moving forward.
Overcoming vs Coping with Challenges
The disability movement provides a valuable roadmap to follow. Young people with severe physical and cognitive challenges are given a steady diet of resilience training with resources, tools, and encouragement to overcome challenges and live fully in-spite of them – and they accomplish remarkable things!
In contrast, why are older adults so often only given tools and resources to cope with – rather than overcome – health challenges? There’s a profoundly different mindset between overcoming and coping, resulting in profoundly different outcomes. A mindset of coping makes it much easier to subconsciously default to withdrawing rather than opening up to possibilities.
Research demonstrates even a week of bedrest (at any age) or long periods of sedentary behavior significantly reduces muscle mass, cardiovascular endurance, and mobility.
For my husband and me, recovering fully required reclaiming strength, mobility, and endurance, doubling down on good nutrition and immune boosting vitamin C, D, and zinc, and reclaiming passions that uplift emotional and social well-being.
My first post-Covid horseback ride was exhausting but also exhilarating. Normally, spending 4-5 hours on horseback doesn’t seem like much effort, but this 2 ½ ride was physically challenging. It was also life affirming as a critical step towards reclaiming my lifestyle and knowing I would recover fully.
Have you recovered from a recent illness or injury? Did negative or positive “aging scripts” impact your experience? What’s your best advice for living well regardless of long-term health challenges?