Feel Like a Pro: Stress & Mental Health for Elite Athletes

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Are you feeling stressed? Overwhelmed when thinking about managing added stressors? How do you mitigate your feelings associated with high stress during certain times of the year?  

 

With busy sports seasons and schedules, intense training regimens, late games, early practices, and everything in between, it’s no wonder you’re feeling the mental and physical stress of being an elite athlete and human being. It can be difficult to manage all of that on top of the pressure to perform perfectly, the expectations you set for yourself or someone else has for you, and all the other mechanics of daily life. You might find that as the stress builds up, your mental health suffers, including less sleep, inability to focus, delayed recovery, and difficulty reaching peak performance in and out of your sport. 

Now more than ever before, a light is being shone on the importance of elite and professional athletes’ mental health. There are many factors that contribute to one’s mental health status, and how each person feels about the general stressfulness of their life and their ability to handle these stressors. As nutritionists working closely with our elite athletes, we are honored to introduce to you how nutrition and lifestyle strategies can balance mood, reduce perceptions of stress, and assist your body in coping with stress so that you can optimize both your performance and recovery.   

 

Athlete or not, a fact of life is that we all experience stress every day, and therefore we all need to prioritize mental health support. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), stress is our body and brain’s response to any kind of challenge or demand (1). Our fight or flight response (aka our sympathetic nervous system) is evolutionarily important for survival type situations. You’ve likely heard the fight or flight example of a tiger chasing you or a bear attacking you. If these acute stress situations were to happen, your body would switch on the fight or flight response in order to help you survive. Your heart would pump harder and pull blood away from your core, such as your digestion, to shunt it towards your extremities to help you flee from the tiger or fight the bear. 

The daily demands of work, school, or athletics––as well as major life changes––can be stressful. To some degree, these stressors can be beneficial, as they can literally move you to perform your best while training in the gym or playing a championship game––or on the off chance you encounter a wild tiger or bear. The problem arises when acute stress stays with us long term, and becomes chronic stress, which can produce harmful effects (1).   

When we experience long term chronic stress, our body doesn’t receive the signal to relax or “return to normal.” The physiological impact of prolonged stress can cause disturbances in our digestion, immunity, sleep, and our cardiovascular, hormonal, neurological, and reproductive systems. These disturbances left unaddressed can ultimately lead to chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and others (1).   

So, what are a few simple things you can start doing now as an elite athlete, whether professional or academic, to reduce stress?   

Prioritize sleep to aid in physical and mental recovery   

Sleeping is how our body heals from yesterday’s activity and prepares for tomorrow. At times, stress hormones can be the reason it takes a long time to fall asleep or why you toss and turn throughout the night. Moreover, stress limits our ability to self-soothe or down-regulate our emotional responses, so if you aren’t getting quality sleep, this could prevent you from being able to manage negative thoughts and emotions (2; 3). Can you see how this can quickly turn into a cycle of creating more and more added stress? This is only one reason why it is so important to focus on consistently getting enough quality sleep.   

 

Three things you can do today to improve your sleep include:   

  1. Avoid eating 2 hours before bed.  
  2. Avoid screen time (tvs, laptops, phones, etc.) at least 1 hour before bed.  
  3. Dim the lights in your home after the sun goes down.  

 

Support digestion   

During the fight or flight stress response, the body will slow or stop digestion – because in the case of being attacked by a bear the last thing your body needs to do at that moment is digest a meal—the priority is to survive the perceived threat. If you exist in a chronic state of fight or flight, you can then imagine what kind of a toll this could have on your digestive system and ability to digest and assimilate nutrients. Have you ever done an intense workout and afterwards, you can’t imagine eating anything? Then an hour later, you’re ravenous? Or maybe you’ve gotten into an argument during dinner and then didn’t want to finish your meal? That’s the stress response we’re talking about. The intestinal tract and the brain are so connected that the brain can influence the gut, but the gut can also influence the brain. A disrupted gut can also lead to increased anxiety and/or stress. There, we see another vicious cycle similar to sleep and stress. Taking action to reduce stress can help us heal our gut and taking action to heal our gut can help us reduce stress and anxiety (4).   

 

Three things you can start doing today to support your digestion include: 

  1. Eat minimally processed whole foods and limit manufactured foods as much as possible (see our Building a Foundation booklet for guidance)   
  2. Eat a rainbow of colorful veggies with each meal 
  3. Avoid or limit foods that cause irritation and/or inflammation in your gut (Did you know that healthy foods can even make you sick, depending on your gut status? Check out our food sensitivity testing!)  

Activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest response)   

Opposite of the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight, the parasympathetic nervous system creates a “rest and digest” response. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body doesn’t need to divert its energy towards surviving a perceived threat. Instead it can focus on long-term health and wellbeing by digesting food and allowing the body to rest and heal. It is often difficult for us to switch between the two systems especially if we are in a current state of stress. It’s helpful to get into the practice of using tools that help us make the switch.   

 

Here are three tools you can start using today:   

  1. NuCalm – a neuroacoustic software that helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Check out the science behind it here.    
  2. Meditation (5)  
  3. Deep Breathing exercises. Check out a link to Box Breathing here.    

 

No matter what stage of life you find yourself in at the moment, there is support readily available to help you recover from stress and perform your best. Small, incremental changes to your daily life will add up to big results, and the ultimate goal of serenity, over time. 

*Please note that we are not mental health professionals and our recommendations do not replace those of a mental health professional. If you are experiencing the symptoms of mental illness, please consult a professional immediately. 
 

Resources:   

  1. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/  
  2. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/fulltext/2017/11000/sleep_and_athletic_performance.11.aspx   
  3. https://drbubbs.com/blog/2020/6/how-to-take-control-of-negative-self-talk 
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/stress-and-the-sensitive-gut  
  5. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2009/issue61/#:~:text=The%20physiologic%20benefits%20of%20transcendental,epinephrine%2C%20norepinephrine%2C%20and%20cortisol   

 

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