Athletes Share Their Mental Health Coping Strategies
I’ve written about my own struggles with mental illness before. But as I’ve learned more about it, I’ve come to realize that knowing you’re not alone—that other people go through similar experiences—and building a support network are two of the more powerful things you can do if you’re dealing with something like anxiety, depression, or OCD. To that end, I reached out to five pro athletes to hear about their problems with mental illness and how they worked through it.
Two-Time Olympic Triathlete; Hanover, New Hampshire
My experience with mental illness started when I was 13 or 14. It first manifested as anxiety before exams and competitions, because of the pressure. Anxiety can very easily morph into depression. The two go hand in hand. In my case, that’s what happened. For years I suffered from what I’d call mild to moderate depression. Last year was the worst.
I was hoping for my husband [professional runner Ben True] to make the 2016 Olympic team. When he didn’t qualify for the team, it hit me super hard. Whether we liked it or not, “our” Olympic experience became “my” Olympic experience. So, when I cramped up in Rio and had to drop out of the triathlon early, I was devastated. Depression set in after the Games. I could only manage about four hours of sleep per night and only with the use of prescription sleep aids and pain medication. I failed Ben. I failed myself. There’s no point to any of this, I thought.
This continued into 2017, and for a good part of that year I couldn’t experience any joy whatsoever. I obsessively thought about taking my own life. I’d be out on long training rides and couldn’t stop thinking about swerving into oncoming traffic, every truck becoming an object that could end it all. Month after month passed, and I kept thinking it can’t get any worse, and yet it just kept on getting worse.
Looking back, my first big step out of this hole was opening up and talking to people about it. I saw a therapist regularly. I did everything—literally everything—I could to stay patient with myself, reminding myself no matter how awful the thoughts are, eventually they’ll pass. I forced myself to connect socially as much as I could, to spend time in nature.
Last fall, the awful thoughts and feelings started to pass. The fog lifted. I started to feel like myself again. I can’t attribute it to any specific thing, but I’m currently feeling the best I have in years.
My advice to others struggling with mental illness is to realize that, yes, it’s abnormal, but it’s also normal in the sense it can happen to anyone. Get help. If you’re an athlete, don’t be afraid to alter your training. It’s hard for a super-driven person to dial back their workload, but if you’re in the thick of a mood disorder, you probably should. It’s no different than shin splints or a stress fracture. Make your coaches aware of what is going on. It’s important for athletes to have a strong network in place.
Middle-Distance Runner; Boone, North Carolina
My running career was very stressful early on. I trained on my own, without the support of a group, and as an elite trying to “make it” in the sport, every workout took on a massive importance, whether imagined or true.
I also have vasculitis, a rare autoimmune disease that almost killed me a few times. This, combined with the stress of running, has given me boatloads of anxiety and depression. In 2013, it got so bad I contemplated suicide. As dramatic as it sounds now, I remember being on the bathroom floor with a handful of pain meds thinking about swallowing them all. I just thought about the pain I would put my parents through, and that was enough to keep me from going over the ledge.
I’m doing a lot better now, although once that pathway is plowed into your brain, angst and depression are always right around the corner. I’ve been taking a medication called Lexapro, though I’m working with my therapist to come off of it soon. I also see a therapist regularly. Social connection has been huge for me too. I started training with a group and embracing the community aspect of running, which has been really helpful. The running community saved my life.
If you’re in a deep hole, get help. Be patient. Do what you can to connect with others, even if that feels impossible. Talk to someone about what you’re going through. That first step is often the hardest.
Two-Time Doubles Tennis Champion; Shreveport, Louisiana
I have played tennis at a high-level since I was young, I attended Vanderbilt University on a full scholarship, my team won the Division I National Championship my junior year, and I was an All-American my senior year. I went pro after graduation and won a couple doubles titles. Ultimately, I struggled with injuries, the lonely life on the pro circuit, and intense depression and anxiety regarding myself and my performance. I had similar anxiety in college but had always managed it by binge eating and purging, overexercising, and depending on people to avoid loneliness. Once I went pro, however, I was frequently traveling and isolated from friends and family, and my entire self-worth was dependent upon my plummeting tennis performance.
A year ago today, I was probably at my lowest place mentally—never suicidal but absolutely depressed and withdrawn, binge eating and purging sometimes multiple times daily, as well as highly anxious that I would never be a good enough tennis player or person. I alternated between being determined to change myself and being resigned that there was no point even trying to change or be better. Then, in August of 2017, I tore my ACL. That was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me since it forced me to slow down and accept care and help from others. I could completely forget about tennis and my own omnipresent failures and allow myself to rest and just focus on the simple daily goals of rehab. Due to the intense mental strain that I incurred on the pro tour and the freedom I felt while being away from tennis, I decided not to return to professional tennis.
Choosing to go to therapy and finding an excellent therapist are the best things I have done in my life. I found my current therapist in March and have been going almost weekly since then, and I feel like a new person. I am becoming more comfortable being authentic and talking about my own vulnerabilities. I believe that I am worthy of love and connection, I am grateful, I am happy. It is an ongoing learning process, and I’m not “there” yet, but I feel freer than ever before. Bouts of depression and anxiety no longer consume or define my life. My reliance on binge eating and purging and overexercising as a coping mechanism has gone way down in frequency and intensity. I am learning to take care of myself and my own needs now—a revolutionary step for me.
I have talked to many elite athletes and people from all walks of life who struggle with these same things. Mental health struggle is truly an epidemic. If only we could talk about our mental health as easily as we talk about our physical health.
Middle-Distance Runner; Boulder, Colorado
I experienced lots of extreme emotions in college. I just thought I was an emotional person, not much different than anyone else. Running was a big outlet. Regardless of how I was feeling, all I had to do was go out there and execute the workout. It was really hard for me to take care of my emotions when I wasn’t running, but I still didn’t think anything was wrong.
That changed in 2014. For the first time in my life, I felt a total void of emotions. I just didn’t care. But those holes were almost always preceded by highs, where I got a lot of stuff done, didn’t sleep much, took on multiple projects at once, and generally felt on top of the world. Then boom, I’d be in a ten-foot-deep hole with no way out.
I was diagnosed with premenstrual dysmorphic disorder by my general practitioner and recommended to see a psychiatrist, who then went over my symptoms and said it was not PMDD but actually type-one bipolar disorder. He put me on anxiety medication to combat the symptoms. I began seeing a therapist regularly—doing talk therapy and meditation work to calm my symptoms. And I started to feel a lot better!
In 2017, however, I was running poorly and the emotional swings came back. I figured I was just depressed because I was running poorly, so I shoved it off. I moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2017, but things kept on getting worse. I just kept thinking none of this matters, who cares, there is no point to life. Oddly, I started running well again, but my mood didn’t turn around. That’s when I realized it wasn’t just my poor running that led to my dive in mood.
I saw a new psychiatrist and therapist. I took a break from running and really put a lot of effort into getting better. I was also put on new medications.
Unfortunately, in November of 2017, I had the worst depressive episode of my life. I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital against my will because the doctors I saw thought I was a risk to myself. I was thinking about taking my life all the time, but I was also terrified to go to a hospital. I was afraid they were going to say I was even more broken than I felt. In the hospital, I was in a deep, deep despair. But after a few days, I realized that this is it, this is my life, and whether I like it or not, this is what is happening. And for whatever reason, I kind of resolved to get better.
Maybe this had to do with the fact that the doctors at the hospital upped my dose of lithium [a common medication used to treat bipolar disorder]. In any event, I started feeling better, and after five days, I was released. I threw myself even more into therapy, particularly something called dialectical behavioral therapy, which teaches you how to be OK with what you are thinking and feeling and see those thoughts and feelings as just clouds passing by, temporary states of mind and body. The combination of more medication and intensive therapy has been really helpful, and I’m currently feeling pretty good.
Sometimes athletes worry about the weight gain that can come with medications for mental illness. I gained about five pounds or so, but who cares in the scheme of things.
I still go to therapy regularly and also meditate frequently. I’m honest and open with the people in my life about how I’m feeling, and I’m becoming more accepting of myself. It’s OK to feel like shit. Just realizing that is freeing.
Former Pro Runner; Madison, Wisconsin
I used to be an elite runner. I was a nine-time Division III All-American and immediately upon graduation signed a pro contract with the Hansons-Brooks team. I won my first professional race, a half marathon, and then soon after PRed with a 1:15:40 for that same distance, just missing the Olympic qualifying standard.
Unfortunately, I never got the chance to go for that qualifier again. I had anorexia, and my condition had been slowly spiraling downward since my junior year of college. After just missing that qualifying time, I was within days of needing hospitalization when I got a stress fracture, which finally forced me to stop running. I was in approximately year three of being amenorrheic (no menstruation). I had osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis, at age 22!). I was cold all the time, religiously counted calories, overexercised, and isolated myself from all my teammates.
I stayed with my pro team for the next year and a half, hoping I’d figure a way out of the hole I was in, but I never did. My team didn’t really understand what I was going through. My contract was terminated just 19 months after I signed it. I moved to Minneapolis, sought treatment at a wonderful treatment center called the Emily Program, gained weight, found a place of recovery, and got my life back. I say that like it was quick—but that took three years.
Three years after my last treatment session at the Emily Program, I have found a healthy way to run and occasionally race, but thankfully I am a world away from the anorexic young woman I once was. That being said, setbacks happen. Sometimes I berate myself for how different I look now and how slow I am compared to my former self. Sometimes starting lines at races are highly triggering. Fortunately, thanks to years of therapy, thus far none of those triggers have turned in to a relapse. Life isn’t entirely easy, but it’s far better than any day I spent stuck in the grips of anorexia, with so many distorted thoughts that my life barely felt worth living. I hope I can stay recovered for the rest of my life.
If you are currently experiencing severe anxiety or depression, you can talk to someone right now at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
This post first appeared in Brad’s “Do It Better” column at Outside Magazine.
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