Anxiety and Depression in Athletes and Resources for Help
This might be a sensitive topic to some, and the very first thing I want you to know is that if you want to comment on this post, you have no judgement from me. My intention in writing this post is to help at least one athlete who is suffering from anxiety or depression. These are very real conditions, and I don’t take them lightly. The good thing is that they are treatable and in many cases curable. I speak to you from the heart here, having suffered from both of these myself.
I am writing this from my own perspective and this post is not intended to give medical advice. I am simply sharing with you what I have seen over the years in athletes, what worked for me personally, and a list of resources that I found very helpful along the way.
I just read an article that said more high school and college athletes are experiencing depression than ever before. There is a link between sports injuries and depression. It said that 33% of athletes with an injury are depressed and 27% without an injury are also suffering. Having an injury makes some athletes feel worthlessness, guilty, and unaccepted by their teams. Why would an athlete who is not injured feel depressed or anxious? They are under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform well in their sport, help their team succeed, maintain their grades and workout schedule. They may feel they have to push through pain or injury as well. ((https://achieveconcierge.com/blog/)
Admitting that you have depression or anxiety is hard. Nobody wants to be singled out has having “mental health issues.” With the onset of my own anxiety symptoms in 1993, having something wrong in your “head” was considered shameful and not normal. There was a huge stigma attached to having any sort of mental health issue and it wasn’t nearly as accepted as it is today. Seeing a therapist in 1993 was a well-kept secret. In 2023 it’s almost a given, like tying your shoes. In post covid 2023 having anxiety or depression is almost fashionable. In fact, almost 19.1% of the population of the United suffers from anxiety (National Institute of Mental Health) and 8.4% from depression. That’s pretty daunting. (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression)
I want to tell you a little bit about the typical personality of many athletes that I come across as a triathlon coach. Most triathletes by nature are high achieving. They usually played competitive sports in high school or swam in college and did well. They have an impeccable work ethic and are willing to push themselves beyond their limits in order to achieve success. Triathletes are hard on themselves. They put immense pressure on themselves to excel not only with swim bike and run but also in their work lives. Many have attained huge success, run their own company or are very high up in management levels.
Triathletes are usually perfectionists or close to it. Many want to do everything right and want to make sure all the boxes in the Training Peaks app are green. (This means the workout is complete.) I’ve actually had athletes delete a workout that wasn’t completed so that their screen looks uniform and all green! I’ve had some actually apologize for the Red (that means the workout never got completed.) My point is that triathletes are driven to do things right and to do them completely. Triathletes by nature are hard on themselves- I mean, who else is crazy determined enough to train for 3 different sports?
Wow that’s an awful lot of pressure. It makes me think of Simone Biles in the past summer Olympics. She was under so much pressure she started having extreme anxiety, so much so that she didn’t’ know where she was when upside down in mid-air. Her fear took over and she couldn’t continue to compete in the rest of the competition. This is what fear of failure and perfectionism can do to an athlete. She was under so much pressure to perform that her nervous system had to throw in the towel. This is actually a form of trauma in my opinion. I don’t think your brain can handle so much time on high alert so it sends something scary like a panic attack to stop you in your tracks.
Michael Phelps is proof that there is a link to athletic performance and depression. He recently opened up about his struggle with anxiety and depression after years of continuous pressure to stay at the top and bring home the hardware from every Olympic event he competed in. He admitted that after every major competition, he seemed to fall into a deep depression due to feelings of not being enough and always having to push harder. (https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/19/health/michael-phelps-depression/index.html)
Why do we feel this great need to perform or prove ourselves? Here’s my personal theory based on many books I’ve read, countless podcasts and YouTube videos: Somewhere along the road of life somebody probably made you feel unworthy, not good enough, not smart enough, shameful, or guilty. All of these are super negative emotions that can fester over time, building up until you have an actual panic attack or depressive episode. In other words, your anxiety didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a slew of buried ongoing emotions deeply hidden from your conscious mind. When your body is in constant flight or fight, that wears on your nervous system and can create physical symptoms (for example why do people have diarrhea before a race?) as well as emotional. Buried emotions can turn into deep rooted anxiety and rage. I sometimes encounter athletes that have have an underlying issue with someone who hurt or rejected them in the past and they feel a powerful need to prove themselves. When they were younger they were powerless to do this, but now as an adult, completing an Ironman is an opportunity to take control. Constant thoughts that you are not enough and never will be is what creates tremendous anxiety and lack of self-worth.
I want you to know if you are reading this that you ARE enough. You don’t need a freaking triathlon to prove yourself to anyone. Do it for you, not to prove shit to anyone else.
I have had athletes tell me that the only reason they are working out so much is for revenge on a boyfriend who broke up with them and that they wanted to make him sorry for what he did. I remember back a few years ago when a college girl came to me for a “revenge body” when I was doing a lot of personal training. She was going to get skinny and beautiful to show her X boyfriend what he was missing.
Sometimes athletes are trying to get over a past trauma, loss, or other unfortunate event and are doing an Ironman to focus on completing a goal. I knew of one woman who lost a baby late in her pregnancy and needed something to focus on to take her mind off her grief of losing a child. This was a good way to focus on something positive and productive in my opinion.
Back to anxiety and depression. My feeling is that when you have lived your entire life holding yourself to the highest standards in everything, well, that takes a toll on your mental health. Maybe you had a controlling parent that expected 1000% from you at everything and made you feel ashamed when you made mistakes. Maybe you felt unworthy of love if you weren’t perfect at everything. Friends, this kind of pressure in my opinion is trauma, and trauma leads to anxiety and depression.
One athlete told me that triathlon training was stressing him out and making him feel overwhelmed. He wasn’t sleeping, was not motivated for his workouts, and didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. This is a case where changing the mindset is helpful. I told him to think of triathlon as a way to RELIEVE stress, not create it. I told him to be grateful that he CAN workout each day and to focus on enjoying the workouts not stressing about them. The pressure we put on ourselves makes triathlon less than enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, some pressure is good, but constant pressure to perform, even in everyday workouts can bring on anxiety, depression, and fatigue. (See my previous blog posts about Over training and Fatigue)
I personally struggled with anxiety in my late 20’s, 30’s and early 40’s. At first I didn’t understand what was happening. I had just finished a Master’s degree and Paul and I moved from Florida to Quantico, VA with the Marine Corps. I really didn’t want to leave Florida and the tour was only for 1 year so I didn’t dive in too deeply there. I took a job at a Catholic school which was paying me half of what I would have earned in the public school. It was a 30 mile drive each way, and the parents of these kids were very critical. The principal catered to the parents and I felt like none of us teachers had anybody backing us. My anxiety levels started to go through the roof, and I began having panic attacks on the way to the school each morning. Then I started to fear driving on I95. Things snowballed and I ended up leaving that job in March, not even finishing the school year. For this I felt extremely guilty but I knew I had to get my anxiety under control.
It was about performance. I had to show these parents that I wasn’t just some young girl out of school. I had to show them and prove to them that I was an excellent teacher. It became too much to handle and I was drowning in self-doubt and fear that I was failing. Again, a TON of unhealthy expectations and pressure.
The worst case of anxiety/depression I ever had was after my first baby was born. Adjusting to your knew life and responsibilities is stressful. More than that though is knowing that you are about to undertake the most important job of your life- raising another human being. And of course, I wanted to do it perfectly and it just doesn’t work that way.
I dove into studying anxiety and depression. I read everything I could about them both. I took a few courses, read many books, and even went to therapy off and on. I had to get things under control and finally beat it. I finally learned that trying to beat anxiety is exactly what keeps it with you. To get over anxiety, you don’t fight it, you simply stop fearing it. As soon as it learns that you are no longer afraid of it, it will truly dissipate. It took a while for me to learn this, but eventually the panic attacks ceased and I don’t really suffer anymore. If I feel anxious now I can usually use the skills I learned over the years to talk myself out of it. My goal now is to help others and give them hope that there is a way out.
Fast forward to triathlon. In 2017 I competed on Team USA. I spent the entire summer getting ready for the race in Rotterdam, Netherlands. I wasn’t eating or sleeping normally for several months before. I was very nervous about representing and performing well, although I was having fun training for it. Several local businesses gave me cash donations to help send me on my way to Europe. Again, I felt responsible that I had to produce a good race. I had a coach helping me with my workouts and I have to say that he was excellent, but also pretty intense. The pressure became overwhelming at times, and I cried a lot because of it. I was injured in my hamstring and my left tibial tendon was super sore. I was over training, fatigued, and I just had to get through this race then I could take a breather. (On a positive note, I was excited and honored beyond words to compete for this great country and nothing was going to stop me from wearing our flag.)
For us triathletes, it’s no wonder we become anxious and depressed. Our sport is intense, requires a ton of training especially at the iron distance level, and our personality is one of perfection and achievement. Some of us feel we have to prove something, get past something, or show the world our strength because otherwise we might appear weak or unworthy.
I’m not saying all triathletes have this personality, but I have encountered many that do.
This is where I share with you what worked and didn’t work for me. It is here where I give you my best advice for how to help yourself through books, online courses, podcasts, and YouTube videos. I have my favorites on all of these and I want to share them with you.
First of all, there are some amazing books out there, my top 3 are
1. Unlearn Your Anxiety and Depression by Howard Schubiner. This is like a workbook that you do a little each day. There is a lot of diving deep into the things from your past that upset you, hurt you, or made you feel unworthy. I like this book because it’s a great way to dump all of your feeling on paper and get everything out in the open that you want to address. Howard also has an online course that mirrors this book. Click HERE to get it.
2. The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. I read this in 2009 after I went through a time with anxiety after my dad passed away. I recommend getting this book on audio and listening to it. The author has some really great affirmations you can use to help calm your nervous system, and fill your brain with healthy, happy, and positive thoughts. Click HERE to get it.
3. Be Anxious for Nothing by Joyce Meyer. Excellent book! If you like the spiritual/Christian side of things, this book is a game changer for taking control of anxiety. Joyce gives concrete examples of how you can use scripture to cast out anxiety/depression. Click HERE to get it.
4. anxietycentre.com This is literally everything you need to know about anxiety. This is one of the most helpful websites I have ever seen if you suffer from anxiety and depression. There are tons of resources on this website including assessments, a complete list of anxiety/depression symptoms, helpful videos and podcasts, and even therapists you can talk to.
5. Mel Robbins, author speaker, does a lot with anxiety having suffered herself. Go to her YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mel+robbins and many of her videos hit the topics of anxiety and depression. She’s written several books as well.
6. Because you are an athlete if you are reading this post, you can always talk to a sports psychologist and get to the bottom of your anxiety and depression. A sports psychologist is trained in this area and could be a great resource to help you hash out your feelings.
7. Nicole Sachs has done a ton of work on mind-body healing, trauma, anxiety, and chronic pain. She is a pioneer in mind body healing and her Journal Speak will show you how to write down your deepest darkest feelings as a healthy way to relieve anxiety, depression, and just about any chronic condition. Follow her on Instagram at @nicolesachslcsw.
My hope in writing this article is to help at least one person. I invite you to use the resources I have shared with you to help you through your own situation. It is time to use the sport of triathlon as a RELEASE from stress and anxiety, not as something that creates it. Changing your mindset to one of gratitude goes a long way in dialing down anxiety and depression. One final note: Anxiety is about fear of the future and depression is about guilt and regret about the past. Depression can also be future focused with a lack of hope or no way out. I urge you to practice staying in the present moment and living most of your life there.
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