Have you ever been so distracted by everything going on in your head that you put your keys in the fridge or the milk in the cupboard? Ever left home without your phone or wallet? How about being caught in your thoughts and bumping into a doorframe or stumbling off the curb? Most of us have had experiences where our thoughts were disconnected from our current moment. Usually this leads to silly mistakes or laughable accidents. However, some of us have had experiences that were far more impactful and led to greater consequences. 

These things happen when our brain and body experience stress. Not all stress is bad stress (in fact, we call good stress “eustress” and bad stress “distress”) but it all creates a demand on the mind and body. Just like a table, you can pile on and pile on but at some point it’s going to break. For many of us, we just keep pushing forward and focus on how to get through. How to take on all the stresses coming at us until we have a good reason to slow down and address the stressors. This creates a full body response that includes an increase in cortisol (our stress hormone), increased heart rate and blood pressure, difficulty concentrating and paying attention, reduced digestion (hello nausea and ulcers!), slowing of reproductive hormones and processes (buh-bye sex drive), mental fog, among other things. In cases of severe or chronic stress build up people may experience heart attack, stroke, or serious mental illness. 

The best way to prevent these occurrences is to take care of ourselves. To engage in “self-care” (I know, I know. This buzzword is becoming overused). We have to understand our stresses, both good and bad, and take steps to mediate the impact. To ignore these things is to risk our lives. 

If you or someone you know were experiencing stress fractures in your spine from playing golf, it’s likely you’d agree with the recommendation to take some rest. Perhaps you’d even encourage some anti-inflammatory medication or even some physical therapy. However, it is often the exact opposite response when it comes to mental health. 

We’re entering into a new age where athletes like Simone Biles, Grayson Murray, and Naomi Osaka are prioritizing their mental health. They are saying that taking care of their mental health is more important than competing in their sport at that moment. Many are saying that they aren’t performing well and are just “quitting” or “bailing” to protect their ego and reputation because they aren’t “tough” enough to push through and accept when they’re performing poorly. And while I can understand that line of thinking, let’s reframe it a bit. 

These athletes are having an internal experience, not that different from a stress fracture. It’s invisible to the blind eye. However, one of the early signs of any bigger issue is a physical effect. A swing feeling off. New pain in a movement. Feeling disconnected and unable to perform like they usually do.

For high level athletes, mental health often shows up in the body first. Athletes have so much experience pushing through pain, ignoring their bodies, compartmentalizing and pushing out distraction. So when their minds ignore mental pain, their brain calls up the body and the two collude to make sure the athlete attends to their issues. When someone like Simone Biles loses her place mid-air in a vault (which is VERY dangerous) it’s her body’s way of ringing alarm bells. When Grayson Murray becomes miserable playing golf and experiences physical pain, it’s likely his body’s way of telling him he needs to address some serious trauma history that he’s been masking with alcohol. 

This isn’t a challenge to go easy on these professional athletes (though I do think that would be the wise, compassionate thing to do). This is a challenge to see yourselves in these athletes. When we find ourselves criticizing high performing athletes for listening to their bodies and being willing to open up about the underlying issues, maybe we need to look inside. What are the stressors in our lives, good or bad? How are we listening to our bodies? This doesn’t make us weak, I promise. 

Would you want to drive on a bridge that was neglected for years? Or would you rather drive on a bridge that has engineers taking a look at it regularly and reinforcing the stress points? Be the bridge. Take time to identify areas of stress and reinforce them so that you don’t crumble without warning and take people with you. 

Dr. Chelsi Day

Dr. Day is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is an Ohio native who completed her Bachelor's degrees in Psychology and Health and Sport Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio while competing on the Varsity Swimming and Diving team as a diver. She then went on to earn a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology followed by a Master's degree and later a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University New England in Keene, NH.

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