A MENTAL HEALTH GUIDE FOR ATHLETES DURING COVID-19
Neal Palles, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Mental Performance Consultant
Neal has been a psychotherapist in Colorado for over twenty years. He has worked both as a consultant and supervisor for employee assistance programs as well as providing psychotherapy in his private practice. His work with employee assistance programs led him to provide crisis support during and after a number of major disasters including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. He is also a passionate endurance and mountain athlete having run events from road 5k’s to 100-mile trail races and has spent countless days backpacking, mountaineering, rock-climbing, and white-water rafting. With a passion to see people reach beyond their perceived limits, he has earned a Master’s in Applied Sport Psychology and is practicing as a mental performance consultant.
We have entered an unprecedented event that affects every living soul on this planet. As athletes, we are not immune to the virus or our emotions around it. Many of us use our sport to relax, decompress, as an antidepressant, and some of us rely on it for income. Feeling worried, anxious, sad, uncertain, depressed, angry, and frustrated all are normal; you are not going crazy. There is no ‘right emotion’ and you may experience many, few or none.
Recognize that there are a number of things you can do right now to take care of your mental health. I will try to outline several here.
First Things First
Acknowledge, note and name your thoughts and feelings. They are going to come up and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Pushing them down will serve no purpose – escape and avoidance only create more problems. Name them - “That’s worry.” “That’s fear.” Physical sensations too, for example, you may feel your heart race a bit, feel a rush of adrenaline like the gun is about to go off, note it - “That’s the adrenaline.” Naming them can be really powerful and separate us from our thoughts and allow us to have space to focus on what we can control.
Refocus on Your Values
Who are you? Our goals may be sidelined “for now” but we can still focus on what gives us meaning. It may take some creativity for some things. Take the time, if you haven’t, to get familiar with your values. Use reflection and journaling as a tool.
The greatest athletes have an optimistic mindset. They know how to look at any situation as a glass half full. How? They practice it daily. How do you practice it if you’re feeling so pessimistic? It takes work – a shift in mindset. Some tools that can help begin the shift are keeping a gratitude journal, writing a gratitude letter, volunteering (if you can safely), and savoring special places moments.
Don’t stress if you are feeling pessimistic. (Um, who wouldn’t be right now?!) Remember the noting of thoughts and create a space for self-compassion. You are going to feel it. Yeah, optimism is a nice frame of mind, but be compassionate of yourself. If you’re just not there – that’s OK!
Gratitude Journal – Write down three things that went well and why they went well. You can also experiment; What are you grateful for right now? Today?
Gratitude Letter – Think about someone in your past that you may not have contact with right now who has helped you and who you are grateful for. Reflect and write a letter to them. Send it to them if you can.
Volunteer – This may be tricky but there are things that you may be able to do. Are there elderly neighbors that need shopping done? Something in the neighborhood that needs fixing? Garbage that needs cleaning up? What about your favorite trail that you can access?
Savor Special Moments – When you’re out for a run or hike, stop and take notice of something. Maybe it’s the view, maybe it’s a flower you have never seen before. Take a moment to look and savor it.
My Race Got Canceled!
There are many pieces of this that I’ll try to lay out. This is a hard thing for so many. Hours, days, months and even years of time and effort have been put into training. It feels like the rug has been swept out from underneath us. This is well beyond our control, the risks for many of the races outweigh the rewards and government orders are prohibiting them from happening. But what can I control going forward? Is there some strange opportunity here? Is it an opportunity to take the time to simply get stronger? Is there an injury that hasn’t been healing up right that can get healed completely now? Is there something you can try differently in training that you’ve considered in the past and want to experiment with? For me, it’s going back to riding hard on the bike. Local yoga instructors and strength coaches have gone online to train athletes. Many videos are free—take advantage of the opportunity. What possibilities can you see?
It also helps to reflect on the incredible things that you have accomplished so far. Maybe it’s a recent PR, maybe it’s an Olympic Trials Qualifier, maybe it was your first hundred-miler. Savor your history. No one, nothing, can take that away.
Again, going back to my first thought, it’s OK to feel the emotions, the anger, and the sadness. It’s OK to grieve! This is a big loss! Be compassionate with yourself.
Connection with others is a main component of resilience. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Take time to connect with loved ones and buddies, use your phone, internet, and email. Connect daily if you can. Call your mom, call your run buddies, have virtual post-run coffee dates – reach out. Also, social distancing does not include your furry friends! Hug your pups a little tighter during this time, maybe teach them a new trick!
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Sleep is going to be critical for both mental and physical health. Get off all electronics at least two hours before bed. Take a warm shower or bath, use soothing music or meditation if it helps. Avoid alcohol and caffeine at least in the hours before bed. Caffeine I would try to stay clear of at least 12 hours before bed. Slow deep breaths can help you reset; these work on your parasympathetic nervous system to slow everything down. Breathe in six seconds, hold for two, and exhale for seven. Put your hand on your belly and note your belly rise. These need to come from your diaphragm. (This helps to calm pre-race nerves as well!) Additionally, a warm shower, bath, and a dark room help set the stage for sleep.
There are so many things that meditation can teach us. For one, it is to be mindful and present in the moment; to be here now. (Nice thing to have on race days, too!) We learn to be non-judgmental of our thoughts, and they are just that: thoughts. It gives us the space to react to the things we value and can control. Additionally, it can create a relaxation response. If you don’t want to meditate, try yoga. Go online and find a yoga class that you can participate in from a distance. There is no wrong way to meditate. There are many great tools available. Apps such as Headspace.com are giving out free meditation and other tools in response to this disaster.
Finally - Reach Out and Seek Help
You are not alone in seeking help. Many great athletes see a psychotherapist. There are many options for psychotherapy. Check with your health insurance or employee assistance program. Many counselors are offering an online service. Additionally, if you do not work, there are counselors that will have a sliding scale, just call and ask. If one counselor doesn’t seem like a good fit, you can find another. Each one of us is different and unique in our needs. A good counselor respects that.
Learn more about Neal here: https://www.buildingmountains.com/