As world views alter, acceptance for those who contrast our own appearance and ideologies steadily increases. Why is it then, that the thought of being mentally unhealthy is so frightening? The mind is undoubtedly complex. Complications with the organ that is responsible for so many aspects of our body should not be a monumental bombshell. Perfection is impossible, resulting with everyone’s brain being slightly different. Of course, some people pose a greater risk in developing a mental illness – not excluding athletes. The vulnerability that mental illness creates is not an image anyone wants to elicit – especially not an athlete whose whole being is to be stronger than their competitors.
Mental illnesses in sport are often overlooked. Part of that is a result of societal expectations. “Mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness and is absolutely the antithesis of what athletes want to portray.” Stated by Dr. Thelma Dye Holmes, it shows that many athletes are idealized for their work and are placed into positions as role models; they are people who physically go above and beyond what others would do (Vickers). To be labeled as anything less than the perfection they aspire to be is damaging. But why does seeking help have to be viewed in this way? Sport psychology is tailored to athletes – even those who are no longer competing. At every level, athletes should understand the fundamentals of mental health and know how to implement coping strategies when necessary.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are all felt to some degree by athletes, particularly during competition. When they are put in high pressure scenarios and then expected to perform at their peak each time, relying on the physical aspects of the body is not enough. Training the mind and body together gives a competitive edge that is more powerful than the body alone. Four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington discusses with CNN how her mind is the greatest tool in her arsenal. “The brain is the master computer of the body. Even when we are working on the efficiency of the peripheral components – the legs, the arms, the butt cheeks – we can recruit the seat of all power to enhance the effectiveness of our work.” (Wellington). She goes on to say that there is an obsession with log books and data, to track how far the athlete has come, but the body can only handle so much discomfort until the brain has to take over. When it becomes overbearing, a sick mind won’t be help the athlete strive to their peak. Doubt will be created, and with that, the athlete will falter.
In addition, when the body is under stress, so is the mind. Fatigue, depression, and anxiety stem from this stress, which in turn increases cortisol levels. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkley have found that chronic stress and cortisol lead to damage within the brain. Their research has uncovered that the fatty tissue surrounding axons, known as white matter, increases in number the more exposed a person is to stress. The severity of this phenomenon is not fully understood, although it is agreed that an increase in white matter decreases the efficiency for communication in the brain leading to problems with memory, decision making, and emotions. They are now looking into how white matter affects such brain disorders as schizophrenia, autism, depression, ADHD, and PTSD (Bergland). A future goal for psychologists and scientists alike is not just to treat these disorders, but to provide information to the public on how to prevent them. Despite opinions of mental illness, getting help when needed is without a doubt the best option for improvement.
The stigma society afflicts on seeking help, whether it’s from professionals or a trusted person, prevent people from reaching their full athletic and mental potential. A sound body needs a sound mind to operate it; avoiding treatment will never fix the problem. There are resources out there to help those in need. Utilizing them doesn’t lessen a person’s worth or abilities, it simply helps strengthen them.
- Bergland, C., (2014, February 12). Chronic Stress can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity
- Vickers, E., (2013, December 19). The Stigma of Mental Health; is it Increased for Athletes?. Retrieved from http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/the-stigma-of-mental-health-is-it-increased-for-athletes/
- Wellington, C., (2012, July 13). Ironman Champ: Your Mind Matters More. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/13/health/mind-over-matter-wellington/index.html