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Connection Between Stress and Mental Health: Lessons from Simone Biles & Other Olympians

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Stress and mental health - Dr. Axe

Stress and mental health came to forefront at the just concluded Summer Olympics in Tokyo when decorated U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, the favorite in nearly event for which she qualified, pulled out of the team competition and then several other events. While she faced plenty of criticism, Biles also inspired many around the globe to admit that even the best in the world can struggle with stress and mental health.

It’s extremely important to take stress and mental health seriously, as it ultimately can contribute to harm and even death if it’s not dealt with properly. That’s what happened recently when 24-year-old New Zealand cyclist Olivia Podmore suddenly died:

Podmore’s cause of death was not confirmed but a friend raised concerns about her mental health and sports officials said the cyclist had reached out to support services offered to athletes.

As a result, New Zealand is reviewing support athletes get for their mental health, and it’s bound to be a major focus for athletes worldwide moving forward.

One way to define stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” You probably already know that stress not only feels bad to experience, but it can be damaging to your body physically as well as mentally.

When you’re under a lot of stress it takes a significant toll on your mood, productivity and things like digestion and energy levels. For example, stress puts you at greater risk of experiencing anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, insomnia and a number of other mood-related issues.

What is the difference between stress and mental health exactly? Stress is often a major contributing factor to more serious psychological issues like depression and anxiety, which is why incorporating stress relievers into your routine is key for preserving your emotional health.

What We Can Learn About Stress and Mental Health from Simone Biles, Olympians

We know from a large body of research that competitive/elite athletes, CEOs, entrepreneurs and celebrities are often at risk of “burning out” and developing mental health issues. Experts believe this is likely due to factors including:

  • intense pressure to perform
  • impacts of injuries among athletes
  • overtraining, which can lead to fatigue and depression
  • social media scrutiny

One recent study found that among professional athletes, up to 35 percent were found to suffer from a mental health crisis — most often in the form of eating disorders, burnout, depression and anxiety that are thought to be caused in part by ongoing stress.

In July 2021, we got to see firsthand how stress and mental health are often closely tied together at the Tokyo Olympics. Case in point: Biles, who unexpectedly decided to step down from competing with the women’s gymnastics team as a result of dealing with mental health struggles.

After the Olympics were already underway, Biles publicly posted on her Instagram, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times…I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”

Although her coaches initially blamed Biles’s withdrawal on an injury, Biles later confirmed during a press conference that there was, in fact, “no injury, thankfully,” and that her mental health was the main factor in her decision to stop competing.

Part of her issues had to do with what gymnasts call the twisties. As ESPN’s Aishwarya Kumar put it:

Biles had a disastrous vault in the women’s team final Tuesday. She seemed to get lost in the air — a phenomenon called “the twisties,” which can cause serious injuries to gymnasts who perform airborne routines. It usually takes some time before the gymnasts can get over the twisties.

Biles said her mind and body were not in sync at the Olympics, and while she missed several events, she did get back to action and took home bronze in the balance beam.

Several other Olympic athletes past and present lent their support and discussed their own struggles with stress and mental health while competing at the highest levels, including:

The connection between stress and mental health:

What are common mental/emotional effects of stress? Stress causes a number of physiological changes in the body, affecting nearly every system, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous and digestive systems.

When someone is under a lot of pressure and stress, the body starts producing more “stress hormones,” including cortisol and adrenaline.

High levels of these hormones can cause side effects, such as:

  • increased heart rate
  • faster breathing
  • muscle tension
  • sometimes irritation, agitation, fatigue and headaches

Many people also notice that their moods take a nosedive when they’re feeling overwhelmed, leading to intense worrying, ruminating, trouble concentrating, poor decision making, anger and other emotional issues. Stress is also known to negatively impact learning capacity, short-term memory and one’s ability to regulate emotions, sometimes leading to a vicious cycle of negative moods that is hard to break out of.

Additionally, while “acute” (short-term) stress can be a good thing because it helps motivate you and keeps you alert, ongoing chronic stress starts to deplete your energy and takes a toll on your immune system too, leaving you more susceptible to illnesses and “burnout.”

Dealing with a high amount of stress, especially on an ongoing basis, raises the likelihood that someone will deal with mental health issues such as:

How to Support Mental Health Under Pressure

Psychologists emphasize that when it comes to dealing with stress and mental health, a regular “self-care” routine, self-awareness and well-established boundaries are crucial.

As one mental health professional explained to Mind Body Green, “I work with countless people who are driven, intelligent, and often struggling with perfectionism. Through my experience, I’ve found it’s essential to identify when tolerating some discomfort can support growth versus when it’s healthier to take a break.”

Below are some science-backed ways to cope with stress and pressure in order to preserve your mental health and keep your mood up:

1. Get Clarity on Your Goals and Priorities

Many experts recommend writing down your goals, values and priorities in order to make them more attainable.

Journaling, as well as meditation and visualization practices, can help you really get in touch with what matters to you personally. This way you don’t wind up stressing yourself out over things that aren’t necessarily that important to you (such as other people’s opinions and materialistic success).

2. Know and Honor Your Limits

If you’re the type to take on too much and expect perfection from yourself, get accustomed to saying no and taking breaks when needed. While it can be advantageous to challenge yourself and face discomfort from time to time, life shouldn’t constantly feel like an uphill battle that is depleting your energy.

3. Take Self-Care Seriously

We all know the saying, “Slow and steady wins the race.” If you’re someone who pushes yourself very hard and gives your all right from the get-go, consider slowing down and conserving your energy by focusing on more self-care, relaxation and rest.

Just like you schedule important deadlines, practices and events into your calendar, carve out time for doing restorative activities that make you feel calm and connected, such as getting a massage, hanging out with friends or spending time quietly in nature.

4. Focus on What You Can Control

Life is always going to involve ups and downs, but what often causes a stressful event to develop into a bigger mental health issue is the feeling of things being out of your control.

When you’re unable to predict what’s going to happen next or control what is happening to you, you’re likely to feel helpless, anxious and even depressed.

Instead of dwelling on things that aren’t within your control, make a list of things you can control and ways you can help determine the outcome of a situation. Just as importantly, identify the actual causes of stress in your life, as well as your chronic worries, so you can better look at them realistically and tackle them head on.

Other Tips

  • Don’t underestimate how important sleep is. Sleep deprivation can make a stressful event seem much more overwhelming, so do your best to get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Practice meditation/mindfulness. Use these to stay in touch with your feelings. This way you don’t ignore pain and other emotions that are telling you something is wrong.
  • Eat a healthy diet to keep you fueled and focused. Focus on eating balanced meals every few hours that include complex carbs, protein and healthy fats.
  • Get regular exercise, which is a natural stress reliever because it can boost moods and improve overall mental health by increasing release of endorphins. Just be careful to listen closely to your body and not overdo it, which puts you at risk for symptoms caused by overtraining.

Conclusion

  • Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
  • What are symptoms of stress? It can affect nearly the whole body and cause changes in heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sleep, muscle tension and ability to focus.
  • There’s a connection between stress and mental health because chronic stress puts people at higher risk for issues like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders and OCD.
  • Many elite athletes, celebrities and entrepreneurs experience high amounts of stress, which sometimes leads to more serious psychological issues. For example, due to intense pressure to perform, fatigue and other factors, we saw how some athletes competing at the 2021 Summer Olympics suffered mental health problems.
  • To cope with stress, experts recommend mindfulness practices, self-care, setting boundaries, rest days and focusing on what you can control.
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