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Mental Health and the Olympics
“Suck It Up” is an unkind, unempathetic, and wrong message to send when it comes to mental health. With the spotlight shining so brightly on Simone Biles this week, the world is becoming ever more aware of the incredible mental and emotional stress on professional athletes. Recently, Naomi Osaka quite publicly exited the French Open citing mental stress. DeMar DeRozan revealed his lifelong struggles with depression during the height of his professional basketball career and reminded us that “We Are All Human.” Michael Phelps shared his personal struggles as an Olympian and subsequently became a vocal advocate for therapy as a way to destigmatize getting help for mental health issues (whether or not you are an elite athlete).
We never know what is happening inside of a person’s mind and as these very focused young people compete for the coveted prize in their field, we (and they) often have expectations that they are “super human” and should just plow through without realizing that the body, mind, and spirit are inextricably connected. We all know that stress takes its toll on the body yet when we look at these athletes, we are dumbstruck at how “perfect” their bodies are. At a glance, you can even tell which is the body of a swimmer, a runner, a gymnast, a weightlifter. So much effort. So much practice. So much attention to toning and perfecting.
When something goes wrong, the message is often, “Suck It Up. You knew what this competitive world was all about. Just focus.” Somewhere in this mix, a person’s entire self-worth can become intertwined with the outcome of their performance. Their sense of self can plummet under the pressure. It can and does happen to anyone.
But let’s stick to the athletes for now.
Simone Biles appears to be opening up about her struggles. Other gymnasts recognized something in the way she dismounted from her vault performance and spoke out. They used phrases like “she was lost in the air.” I am not a gymnast but “getting lost” while twisting and turning as you are flying upside down through the air cannot be a good thing.
What about, instead of saying “Suck It Up” we attempt to step back and relate to what this person may be experiencing. That would require that we really watch, listen, be sensitive and compassionate to what is going on internally. This person dedicates their life to becoming one of the best in the world in their sport. As they work so hard, they are under the watchful / critical eye of BILLIONS of people (thanks to social media). Many of these observers (fans?) feel entitled to have access to, and pass judgement on, the way the person looks, talks, performs, wears their hair, and even whom they love. I mean, really?
Simone Biles may choose to share some of what is going on within her mind that contributed to her decision. From what I observe, she knows the power of her voice and can use it to speak up about that which contributes to the shame people feel when they keep secrets about their lives. Her brave sharing of the sexual abuse that she and other young athletes suffered at the hand of Larry Nassar helped to give power to the “Me Too” movement as well as to secure a safe environment for future athletes. Perhaps now she will use her platform to speak up about mental health–or not. It is up to her. We are not to judge. We can “practice kindness.”
We cannot underestimate the power of sharing personal stories as a way to begin to release the shame that people feel when dealing with mental health issues. Typically, when dealing with mental health issues, there is a lot of suffering and judging, and very little talking. Talking openly about our own experiences is a way to help ourselves and others. Again, de-stigmatization is a process. We, as a society, have come a long way and we have a long way to go in the appreciation of the impact of dealing with life stresses. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, DeMar DeRozan, and Michael Phelps are just a few athletes who have opened themselves up to help others start conversations and begin the process of de-stigmatization. They did that while many shouted “Suck It Up.”
When we are in the throes of a mental health crisis, we often do not recognize it. Others may see it but are afraid or feel uneasy or ill-prepared to help. If something seems wrong, if you can, ask for help. If you see that something is wrong in someone else, try to raise it in a way that communicates compassion, love, and responsiveness. Listen without judgement. Invite the person to share their story.
This is a significant moment for us to share with those we know how much we respect these athletes’ willingness to share their mental struggles. Perhaps speaking with respect and compassion will allow someone we know to share that they are struggling. Perhaps we are struggling ourselves and can use the courage of these athletes to speak up for ourselves without shame and ask for help.
Often, we are in rush to move from one task to another as we manage households, kids, meals, work, and myriad other tasks that fill up our days. All the busy-ness interferes with our ability to acknowledge the passage of time in the sense of the “process” of getting somewhere. In other words, “arriving” has become more the focus than the “process.” For example, in the Japanese tea ceremony, the passage of time is celebrated by varying the utensils and layout of the tea ceremony room based on the seasons. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embraces reflection on the singularity of that moment in time. The focus on “wabi” refers to the kind of beauty found in uneven or unbalanced things. The asymmetry of a ceramic bowl used in the tea ceremony is an example of wabi. “Sabi” is the beauty of aged things and speaks to the impermanence of life through the passage of time. The patina found on an old metal object exemplifies sabi.
In appreciating the passage of time and practicing that in the routines of our busy days, we open the opportunity to be more accepting and open to the beauty of flaws and rawness in the necessities of life, from eating and bathing well, to taking time to exercise, to preparing for a good night’s rest.
The worry and fear (and sometimes dread) that we experience as we think about a future event is referred to as anticipatory anxiety. Whether it begins a few moments or a few weeks or a few months before an anticipated event, this type of anxiety can take over a person’s ability to enjoy their life as it is incredibly draining.
As I have said in previous newsletters, many of us struggle with anxiety related to COVID-19. And the changing and challenging recommendations about how we engage with others as we try to feel comfortable in the way we live our life may, for some of us, increase that anxiety. We may have concerns about wearing masks, maintaining healthy physical distance, commuting to and / or being at work, or keeping our children both safe and engaged so they have healthy social, emotional and academic experiences.
Anticipatory anxiety is a symptom of other conditions and can change over time from worry about a specific event to a more generalized fear that encompasses the original worry and other, broader worries. Incorporating some regular practices and strategies can help address and ease anticipatory anxiety. Some people are able to do this on their own or in a group while others do better with the guidance of a mental health professional.
Here are some self-care tips that can help you get through bouts of anticipatory anxiety:
Develop and Use a Trustworthy Support System. Social support provides an opportunity to talk about your concerns with family members or someone you trust. You may find that talking things through may be helpful and/or that someone else has a viewpoint that can help you to reframe the way you think about the situation and offer a different perspective.
Create a Sleep Ritual. Anticipatory anxiety and lack of sleep are VERY CLOSE FRIENDS. Enough deep, restorative sleep can help reduce anticipatory anxiety. When we are not sleeping our brain is more likely to race to whatever it is we are anxious about. Finding what works for you to enhance rest and sleep can be transformative. Develop a healthy relationship with sleep. Set a specific bedtime and wake up time and try to keep to it every day. Prepare for sleep in ways that will enhance your sleep (attend to lighting, noise, movement, shutting off phones, TV, and other devices, so you can quiet your mind and body with calming stretches, prayer, poetry, music, progressive relaxation of your body, whatever works.
Relax. Finding a way to relax can help you keep your anxiety at bay, and possibly even lessen the anxiety you feel. Relaxation techniques are personal. What works for me may not work for you. What helped when you were 25 may or may not work now that you are 45. Give yourself the opportunity to know what helps you NOW, at this time in your life. Be open to explore yoga, tai chi, meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, a hot bath before sleep, listening to music, reading inspirational passages, or taking walks in nature. Include a few options for different circumstances. Prayer may help when you are trying to sleep while walking in nature may help focus your mind as you try to solve a problem.
Use Distraction. Sometimes when we are anxious, we ruminate and have a hard time moving our thoughts off of our target. Getting your mind off of the object of your anxiety can literally change your brain and give you “space to rest.” Some of the suggestions for relaxing are useful for distraction as well. Clean a closet, laugh at a funny video or movie, help someone who needs help. get lost in a book, sing all of the lyrics to a Broadway musical, listen to your favorite musician, organize your photos or create an art project.
Be Kind to Yourself. Treat Yourself with Compassion. When you are challenged with anticipatory anxiety, your “go to” response may be to criticize yourself; to beat yourself up. Acknowledge this need to be self-critical and then breathe, place your hand on your stomach or on your heart, or hold your hands together, and soothe yourself with supportive words or phrases as you quiet the inner conflict. Speak to yourself as if you are soothing a young child who is afraid or anxious. This process can help you to feel less alone as well as more mindful of healthy ways to deal with the fear you are feeling.
Seek Help. Dealing with anticipatory anxiety is challenging, but overcoming this anxiety is possible. If your efforts are not reducing symptoms, it may be wise to consult a professional and develop a strategy to manage your symptoms effectively and healthily. Since so many people are conducting counseling sessions online, you can create an opportunity to explore these issues in the comfort of your own space.