Elite athletes are susceptible to mental health issues, just like anyone else. And, much like stress can adversely impact a person’s work performance, a poor mental state can leave an athlete feeling sluggish, tense, and unable to perform at their own standards. This, in turn, can worsen their mental health. High stress levels may even affect athletes’ teamwork, increase their risk of injury, and shorten their careers.
By understanding how stress and its related mental health effects can impact performance, athletes and their coaches can learn how to improve their mental states and limit or even avoid potential negative outcomes.
The Basics of How Stress Affects the Brain
Before you can recognize how stress affects athletes specifically, it’s important to learn how stress affects everyone’s brains. The human brain may be one organ, but within it are different regions that perform their own tasks. When one region is working on something, the others don’t have as much energy to handle their own functions.
Stress triggers the fight, flight, or freeze parts of the brain, preparing the body for danger. This results in your sympathetic nervous system activating the adrenal glands, which pump adrenaline into your body—resulting in a faster heartbeat, higher blood pressure, and rapid breathing. In order to keep you in survival mode, the pituitary gland releases a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands again, this time to release cortisol, which triggers a state of high alert.
Meanwhile, because the brain is prioritizing survival mode, functions like memory, hunger, rest, and social drive take a backseat. This is why stress can cause you to lose your appetite, affect your sleep, and leave you feeling worse overall.
Once the stress response ends, the parasympathetic nervous system acts as the brake. This system promotes the rest and digest response that helps the body recover after the danger passes.
The Brain and Athletic Performance
Physical exercise doesn’t only change the body, it also alters the brain. In high-level athletics, competitors must make split-second decisions and react just as quickly. They are constantly—and usually subconsciously—absorbing information from all around them to perform optimally.
In measuring athletes’ brains, experts have found athletes are much better at processing information, predicting outcomes, and executing plans than non-athletes. Though other areas are involved, the most important areas for this neuro-efficiency are:
- The frontal lobe: responsible for reasoning and decision-making, recalling information, attention span, and voluntary muscle movements
- The temporal lobe: responsible for memory storage and recall, object recognition, social understanding, and expression
- The thalamus: responsible for relaying incoming sensory information from the body to the brain
Stress and an Athlete’s Brain
During intense exercise, the body naturally releases a small amount of stress hormones. Under typical circumstances, this stress helps boost athletic performance. However, when their bodies are constantly pumping cortisol to keep them in survival mode, the areas of the brain that are highly developed in elite athletes can begin to malfunction.
Experts believe that high cortisol levels can change the maturation of certain stem cells in the temporal lobe, preventing them from becoming neurons. This has many potential impacts, including increasing the emotional response and harming memory.
Additionally, stress wears down the frontal lobe, hindering cognitive abilities and voluntary muscle control. In animal studies, even spatial memory worsens. This could result in a player forgetting their role during a set play, harm their ability to locate the ball, decrease their coordination, or even just cause them to have an emotional outburst.
How Stress Affects Athletes Beyond the Brain
While recognizing how stress impacts the brain is important, it’s also integral to recognize how that translates for each athlete. Everyone responds to stress differently, thanks to their unique brain developments and personal experiences.
The Key Stressors
First, we need to identify common sources of stress for athletes. One of the most common is sports performance anxiety. A small amount of performance anxiety is typical, but a larger level could affect a person’s performance, self-confidence, and concentration.
Some people may have forms of social anxiety that increase stress when communicating with coaches, the press, or other teammates. This may even cause some athletes to perform worse in moments where their individual play is more important.
Many athletes have a form of pre-game ritual or routine that provides a sense of stability and control. Rarely, this could be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder or a similar issue and a failure to perform the routine could cause high levels of stress and anxiety.
Athletes can be susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), due to a major injury, abuse, or witnessing a traumatic event. Due to social stigmas, they may also avoid discussing their condition or symptoms, further increasing stress levels.
What Stress Does to an Athlete
One of the most typical symptoms of stress is greater muscle tension. While stressed, an athlete may feel stiff and have difficulty moving as they normally do, resulting in an increased chance of injury. Plus, stress’ impact on the body can slow the healing process from even minor injuries.
Stress is also a driving force behind both performance anxiety and depression, all of which can make daily tasks a struggle. From sleeping disturbances and a loss of motivation to poor appetite and low self-esteem, these major mental health conditions are serious concerns for athletes and non-athletes alike.
Additionally, athletes are disproportionately prone to developing bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and anorexia nervosa, among other eating disorders. This is due to the importance of their bodies in their craft, as well as the increased focus on having the “ideal” body from coaches, spectators, and fellow competitors. Eating disorders often cause fatigue, concentration problems, poor judgment, and slow healing.
The accumulating stress and increased stress response can also strain social relationships. For some people, this might lead to altercations with the team or support staff or even punishments from referees for mid-match outbursts.
How to Manage Athlete Stress
One of the most common recommendations for improving your mental health is to get more exercise. Of course, this is rarely a problem for elite athletes. So how else can an athlete manage their stress?
The first is to eat a proper, nutritious diet. Because of an athlete’s increased physical activity and exercise level, this often requires an increase in certain nutrients that average people don’t need. Speaking with a licensed dietician is a great start toward following a healthy diet.
For many people, playing a sport is an enjoyable hobby that improves stress levels. However, because their sport is often a source of stress, athletes should consider hobbies outside of that realm. Playing music, reading books, or watching movies are all great ways to unwind.
Additionally, activities like yoga or meditation are proven to help with stress and other mental health conditions, while also improving athletic performance.
Getting Help When You Need It
Elite athletes may face unique stressors but ultimately are susceptible to many of the same mental health issues that can affect anyone else. The good news is there is help. Neuro treatments have helped many athletes take their performance to the next level, by correcting stress-related brain imbalances and restoring brain health. And, just as a competitor relies on a coach for training advice or their team for moral support, many athletes have found help from a therapist in the form of tools and techniques for coping with stress.