How Can Art Boost the Mental Health of Athletes in Recovery? – Sports Medicine Weekly | Dr. Brian J. Cole
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Published on: 14-Nov-2020

Michael Phelps, the most decorated athletes in Olympic history (with an impressive 28 medals) made history in more ways than one when, after the 2012 games, he told the press that he had struggled with longtime depression so consistently, that he sometimes thought of taking his life. His story is a stark reminder that although exercise is a documented way to lift the mood and keep (stress hormone) cortisol levels low, it isn’t always a panacea for common mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. There is therefore plenty of room for so-called ‘alternative therapies’ – including mindfulness-based practices such as meditation, music therapy, and art therapy, to boost the mental health of those who are already obtaining the most they can from their workouts.

Recreational Art Therapy and Reintegration for Sports People with Spinal Cord Injury

One study undertaken by K. Ansari and H. Mahesar revealed that the creation of art could offer wounded athletes living with a spinal cord injury an opportunity to boost their quality of life. The researchers stated that artistic creation could encourage recovering athletes to use their free time effectively, thus helping them turn to drink or substance abuse to cope with pain and mental stress. Meanwhile, medical professionals at Ohio State University offer heart therapy to help people who have faced sports or recreation injuries to regain their daily skills. For instance, fine motor skills can be regained by drawing eyes or other detailed parts of the face. Of course, these drawings can also be used to talk about emotions and sensations that may be difficult to discuss without the symbolism that art can provide. Artistic drawings, collages, and photography can also be used to discuss difficult emotions such as ambiguous feelings about the recovery process.

Art and Mindfulness are a Winning Combination

A 2020 review of the use of a combined approach involving art and mindfulness for competitive athletes recovering from sports injuries, was recently published by Lesley University’s J Hammond. The review showed that current treatment for these athletes usually involves goal-setting, guided imagery, and relaxation. However, because injuries can have such a profound psychological impact on athletes, they can cause significant stress and a deterioration in their resulting health outcomes.

This negative state, in turn, can reduce the athlete’s overall chance of returning to his or her sport. Just a few effects of injury, research suggests, include anxiety, anger, depression, and mood swings. This is where both art therapy and mindfulness can be of aid. As stated by the review author, art therapy is a particularly powerful way to extract elements from the subconscious and express images for injuries. It also enables athletes to discuss the imagery in their work and reach a place of greater self-awareness, self-acceptance, and subjective wellbeing.

The Mindfulness Aspect

To boost the effects of art therapy, Hammond reports, mindfulness is key, in that it emphasizes the importance of simply ‘being’ in the present moment and of accepting all emotions (both negative and positive) without pushing them away and without taking a judgmental stance. Mindfulness has also been found in study after study to lower stress hormone (cortisol) levels. Doing so is an important preventive step to mental health (since there is a link between consistently high stress levels and conditions like anxiety and depression).

Exercise per se lifts the mood and keeps stress levels down but when an athlete is injured, they can no longer turn to their favorite sport to make everything seem right once again. In addition to standard therapies, art therapy and mindfulness can both help in recovery. They can do so by providing athletes with the symbolism they need to discuss their emotions and by keeping their mind in the present moment – away from thoughts of past regret or worry about the future.


By Jess Walter

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