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Published on: 28-Apr-2022

Being an athlete can be fantastic, but at the same time, it can be overwhelming, too. With the high that comes along with every success, it’d be worth noting, as well, that they tend to be exposed to various levels of stress. This includes the burden of physical training, the growing pressure of competition, and performance anxiety, among others. 

And in some cases, it can be difficult for an athlete to manage their distress and what’s expected of them. For that reason, they could be subjected to mental health issues.

Athletes And Their Mental Health

Mental health issues generally include conditions such as depression and anxiety. From a medical point of view, these conditions could happen when a chemical imbalance occurs in the brain, and hormonal imbalances occur.

These chemical imbalances and hormonal imbalances can result from various factors, including genetic formations, traumatic incidences such as accidents, sexual abuse, extreme fatigue, pressure, and distress. 

In some cases, symptoms can be unnoticeable, especially if you don’t know which signs to look out for. For that reason, here are some mental health-related signs you can be wary of.

  1. Excess Alcohol or Drug Intake

Mental health issues can generally make people feel emotionally drained and mentally weighed down. There could be instances, as well, wherein some tend to feel unmotivated and uninspired to go on with their day. And in such a case, some may resort to excessive alcohol and drugs to drown what they’re feeling and feel good. 

Alcohol and drugs are known to provide temporary highs where one may feel better at that moment and enjoy bursts of laughter, happiness, and peace. However, these temporary bursts have to be constantly fed by continuous drinking or taking of drugs because once the feelings of bliss wear off, the crash may be heavier than previously.

Some of the signs that alcohol and drugs intake have become a norm for them include:

  • Sudden dispositions of excitement quickly wear off
  • A constant discussion about how they need a drink of alcohol
  • Alcohol or drugs are always on the person, whether they try to hide this fact or not
  • A strong denial of the drinking or substance abuse problem that they have a problem 
  • They are unable to perform at a game without having taken drugs or alcohol
  • They seem distracted or confused during training or a game
  • They miss training or don’t compete because they are physically unwell because of alcohol or drugs

Alcohol and drug dependency are not something you should take lightly. While it can be difficult to suddenly discontinue a habit, especially if one believes that it’s the only way that they can get through the day, help is available. 

Rehab facilities such as Jackson House Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers can be a good place where athletes can get professional help for their alcohol or drug addiction. The teams of trained professionals can help people overcome their addictions through intense and long-term goals intervention.

  1. Heightened Anxiety

Being nervous from time to time or feeling anxious when competing in the field is considered normal. After all, athletes are human too. Essentially, anxiety among athletes can be tied to the fact that they’re aware that they are being watched and criticized, and their fans rely on them to do their best. Anxiety may also be tied to the possibility that they are letting down many people and trainers if they don’t win.

This kind of anxiety is expected. However, if the anxiety is heightened to the point where it now occurs frequently, and others start noticing a behavior change, it may be a sign of mental health issues.

For example, if, before a tennis game, a player continuously shakes to the point where they cannot hold the tennis racket steady, the anxiety is likely to have peaked. In some cases, this can be accompanied by excessive sweating, where it seems as if they had already played a match when they hadn’t. 

Or perhaps, they may also have trouble breathing or speaking to the point where the medical team on standby has to intervene. This anxiety level is probably tied to performance outcomes and can signify deeper mental or emotional issues triggered by the pressure to perform.

  1. Decreased Interest In Sports 

For an athlete to experience a decrease in interest in their sport is one of the signs of mental health. Generally, when one experiences mental health issues, they lose interest in the activities they used to enjoy the most. The chemical and hormonal imbalances can affect the physical energy levels required while playing sports. The less physical energy an athlete has to play a sport, the less interested they become in training or competing.

Indications of a decreased increase in sport by an athlete include;

  • Missing training sessions frequently
  • Arriving late to training
  • A reduced eagerness to learn more about the sport
  • Decreased enhancement of the skills required to excel in the sport
  • Feeling nonchalant if they don’t win a game
  1. Drastic Weight Loss/Gain

When experiencing mental health issues, athletes may suddenly gain weight or lose weight without intentionally changing their diet. This can be a result of a hormonal imbalance, for example. Or perhaps, some overindulge in food when faced with mental health issues, as food can be comforting. Food can provide an instant high as the process of eating releases the feel-good dopamine hormone. It’s excess eating that can lead to weight gain.

On the other hand, others stop eating when faced with mental health issues. They lose interest in food, lose their appetite, or don’t have the energy to prepare or eat food.

  1. Self-Isolation

Socializing can become a draining chore when one is going through a mental health issue. The energy required to hold conversations, listen, smile, laugh, and generally be pleasant can take a toll in such a scenario. They probably would have been depleted of physical, emotional, and mental energy before being placed in a social setting. And to some extent, athletes continuously have to socialize during training, perform, and hold interviews and meetings.

One of the notable signs of mental health issues is when athletes start to self-isolate themselves so that they don’t have to expend so much energy interacting with others and proving that they are fine. This could be as simple as avoiding other athletes in the changing room where most conversations take place or as major as declining to hold interviews and be seen by the public. And in some cases, athletes facing mental health issues may immediately remove themselves from their team members upon completing training or a game.

  1. Extreme Fatigue

Athletes can experience extreme fatigue because with mental health issues can come disturbances in sleep patterns. Some may struggle to sleep because of the constant thoughts and heaviness. Others may oversleep because of tiredness, though oversleeping may only contribute more to fatigue.

Extremely fatigued athletes may begin to perform slower, fall asleep on the benches, or have delayed reaction times. Mental health professionals can only intervene in this kind of exhaustion tied to mental health issues.

  1. Frequent Mood Swings

Mood swings can often be an indication of mental health issues. This can be detected by simply observing the current mood of an athlete and comparing it with how they usually are.

If an athlete is known for being patient with other team players, for example, and suddenly throws tantrums towards them, the sudden change is cause for concern. The contrary also holds that if an athlete is short-tempered but suddenly so tolerant that nothing seems to bother them, that too could be a red flag. Any sudden change in mood can indicate that something may be going on with them.

  1. A Nonchalant Attitude Towards Sporting Results

The outcome of a competition can directly affect how an athlete feels. Generally speaking, if they lose a game, they’d feel sad, discouraged, or disappointed. When they win a game, they’d feel ecstatic, excited, and pleased. If they are happy, they may even clap their hands and hug each other in celebration. And on the other hand, if they lose, they may walk with their heads down, and others may shed a tear of sadness.

If athletes display a calm attitude upon completing a game, they could be experiencing numbness of emotions. Numbness of emotions means the inability to process events and connect to these emotions, which could be another tell-tale sign of mental health issues. Aside from generally losing interest in the sport, they could also be losing passion in the career they’ve built for so long.

  1. Suddenly Quitting

Athletes usually go through a process before finally deciding they no longer wish to participate for reasons other than age, injury, or illness. When athletes suddenly quit, those close to them may not be surprised by the decision. The signs, as mentioned earlier, may have been apparent and led to the emotional, mental and physical collapse of the athlete to the point where they decide to quit.

It’s therefore important to seek professional guidance before the situation escalates to such a critical point.

  1. Suicidal Speech

Suicidal thoughts can be a result of mental health issues. When athletes begin talking about death, whether casually or in jest, one must take note of this kind of behavior. This isn’t a light matter that you should easily brush off as a joke.

For example, one can ask their teammates whether they will miss them when they die. Such conversations aren’t simple discussions held in the changing room and need raising with leadership. In addition, social media these days has been a form of an open diary. If an athlete uploads sayings, photos, or pictures that allude to death, this may be a cry for help.

Reach out and lend an ear should you notice this sign. If in doubt on what to say to offer your comfort and empathy, consider calling for a professional help 

Wrapping Up

There are many signs of mental health issues, and these shouldn’t be ignored. In some cases, these symptoms can be subtle, too light for one to notice, and knowing them may just help save a life. 

Once you recognize these signs of mental health issues, then you can be in a position to reach out for general conversation; you can do so as they may eventually share their struggles and feelings with you. You’ll then be able to encourage them to seek professional guidance before they possibly harm themselves or others.

By Roger Martin, an athlete mental health advocate. He dedicates some of his time to writing blogs about developing mental skills for competitions.


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The post 10 Signs of Mental Health Issues in Athletes appeared first on Sports Medicine Weekly.