I am beyond excited to share that I have been recently selected as a participant for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee mental health registry.
Cultivating athletic environments where there is both understanding and communication about mental health is critical. I am thankful to be part of a community of like-minded professionals who are continuously striving to provide whole mind and body support and care to all athletes.
Your Nervous System
The most important thing to recognize about your nervous system is that it does not ask your permission or your opinion before it does its job to protect you. This is essential in keeping you alive. How so? If your nervous system perceives your repressed emotional world as a greater predator than your physical anxiety, symptom, pain, and so forth, it will lock into protective mode and cause the symptom - trigger the symptom - to divert you from thinking about your repressed emotional world that you have no control over.
Deep in your brain, the hippocampus checks every sensory input it receives and compares it against our memories and experiences. If something is not right, the amygdala which is our alert system right next door to the hippocampus is activated. The amygdala communicates through sensations that you feel in your body and does so by sending a channel of information into your gut and other organs via the vagus nerve.
The gut feeling you have should not be confused with emotions. Rather, it can help you process emotions both present and past. For example: imagine you feel like there is a lump in your throat when you feel upset. If it feels safe to do so, go into your body and ask: what is this lump sensation in my throat? Does it want to move or expand? What does it need from me in order to do so?
A professional athlete who was once my patient had massive anxiety when younger players were drafted and/or traded to play on his team. He did a very brave thing: he went and got to know them and helped his amygdala learn that it was safe and friendly. How so? He learned to how to shuffle between all levels of the brain including: reasoning and logic, feeling and emotion, and wisdom of the body. By doing so, he was able to feel more integrated, less in conflict with himself, and feeling much more connected to his teammates.
Do you ever have a gut feeling that you know you need to listen to? Our bodies are part of our minds and they speak to us every day. And when you pay attention, it can improve your life.
Sometimes your body knows what is right for you. It sends you signals. When your feelings are in a spin, the message from your body becomes very clear. However, the message or messages can become difficult to interpret when our mental health is in poor shape.
Anxiety and inner conflict arise if our inner compass is cloudy and if our mind is at odds with itself in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. In my practice, I both encourage and educate my patients to learn how to listen to their own insides and actively tune into the sensations they experience in their bodies. By doing so, we can identify what is right for us and and feel empowered to take the small, safe steps towards healing.
This type of somatic awareness can help us to become aligned in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The gut feelings we experience are not just for emergency "fight or flight" situations, they are present all the time. Just as you are reading this blog post, if you focus your attention on the heart and gut regions of your body, you will begin to notice a response to my words. Just notice if any part of you feels my words to be true, or perhaps you feel "no that can't be true". Perhaps you notice your attention going elsewhere? Like reading ahead to see how much longer this post is? Just notice how quickly or slowly your body is able to take a complex situation and summarize it quickly, or moment by moment.
There is to come on this topic, so stay tuned!
This weekend and especially Sunday will be difficult for women I know both personally and professionally of all ages and backgrounds.
My post here is not to take away the pleasure and joy of this holiday for people who genuinely enjoy it, but rather to give voice to the alternative experiences. This is my alternative experience. This Sunday and every day I remind myself of all the women who have in many ways been maternal figures to be throughout my life. Not just my own mom.
The Mother's Day narrative that is pushed into reality as a Hallmark holiday isn't everyone's story. And recognizing other people's grief does not and will not take away from your joy. There are many people out there who are eager to have their own Mother's Day stories witnessed and acknowledged. This post is for you.
To those who are celebrating on Sunday please have your nice things! Delight in your parade. Savor them. And remember what you are experiencing is not a given.
There are going to be days where it may be hard to talk about our feelings. Just because we may struggle to express what we are feeling in a moment does not mean there is a requirement to withdraw from people until we can figure it out.
I feel challenges are opportunities for growth in disguise. When we hit some type of wall with communication and connection, we are being challenged to develop new ways to improvise the way we are communicating and connecting.
I love this idea of using emojis and a classic children's toy as an alternative method to communicate how we are feeling when we struggle to find words that will be able to cut the mustard.
TikToks, gifs, and memes are also effective (let's be serious here - they are also super fun). What are some alternative ways you have learned to communicate how and what you are feeling?
Look at a pencil. We know that in order for it to become useful pencil that from time to time, again and again it’s going to have to go through a resharpening. Well if this pencil could feel we could imagine how painful that would be. But that’s what it takes for it to be a useful pencil. Life is much the same. Painful experiences and challenges come to us all but it is through these opportunities that we build character and we grow.
Second is to keep in mind that we will be able to correct many of the mistakes we make along the way. Just like the eraser. So if we learn from our mistakes, they’re not mistakes, they are lessons we can use to do better for the next time around.
A few months ago I had both the honor and privilege of contributing as a guest to the Dance Nutrition Blog, operated by To the Pointe Nutrition Founder and Registered Dietician (RD), Rachel Fine. I am linking the article to her website here.
Rachel works closely with dancers, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts alike. Rachel is a professional who is authentically and compassionately herself, and her service and dedication to her clients is unparalleled.
Rachel is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist, Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition, and Certified Counselor of Intuitive Eating. You can also check out her main website, To the Pointe Nutrition by clicking here.
Now that I have your attention, I want to share a bit of information on how we experience feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, more people are experiencing feeling depressed and anxious than ever. Long periods of isolation, coupled with chronic stress and worry are certainly a factor in this ongoing crisis in mental health and there is a reason for that.
Humans are a social species and isolation has a major impact on our emotional state. The human brain contains pathways that without much stimulation and physical connection cause a depression (or decrease) in neural activity that overall contribute to emotional and mental states.
Feelings of wellbeing and happiness are largely driven by four brain neurotransmitters and hormones - endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. These four neurotransmitters and hormones specifically have complex effects on our brain, body, and overall lifestyles (e.g. what we eat, who we spend time with, what we do). And the effects can be for better or for worse.
The brain contains numerous receptors that have a basic primary function of receiving, interpreting, and channeling data to produce a chemical response. When you are in significant pain, the brain's receptors receive that data and in response, release morphine. Endorphins have a similar effect on the receptors in the brain and can often relieve pain, creating a feeling of bliss as a side-effect.
Exercise is often recommended as a coping mechanism because exercise is known to release endorphins. After an intense workout is completed, any physical discomfort is alleviated and a person can feel a sense of euphoria. Euphoria can feel like a post-workout boost in mood, or a "runner's high". Despite having a positive impact on mood and overall functioning post-workout, it is important to not overdo it with exercise because over-exertion can cause the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can negatively impact mood.
A key component in creating endorphins in the body is to go slightly out of your comfort zone. This is not limited intense physical exercise as the only option. I often suggest to my clients who are struggling with anxiety disorders to consider using cold water exposure as coping mechanisms. The initial shock of cold water exposure (e.g. ice packs on the back of the neck, ice cold spoon or ice pack underneath the eyes, jumping in a cold body of water such as the ocean, cold shower) is certainly uncomfortable at first but that is the point! The body will release endorphins to counteract the intense discomfort. This method also helps train and condition the brain to become familiar coping with stress as the brain learns that suffering is temporary.
Oxytocin is known as the love hormone, but it is involved in almost all forms of human bonding. Hugging, or any close physical contact with people you love - such as holding hands or cuddling your pet will deliver oxytocin and boost your mood. Of course, with Covid-19 there are greater restrictions in place creating numerous barriers to experiencing close physical contact with people and many people are being denied the physical touch that humans naturally crave. While in-person interactions can produce greater oxytocin, connecting with others online is still better than nothing. A weighted blanket and perhaps a warm bath could be useful tools to utilize as a supplement for feeling isolated during the pandemic.
Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter in the brain. Dopamine is released when you do things that give you immediate pleasure, like getting a snap from someone on Snapchat, or eating. This neurotransmitter is linked to the anticipation of reward and will drive you to seek out things you enjoy. If we did not have Dopamine, we would have the ability to possibly enjoy something one time and never be motivated to do it again.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown and pandemic began in March of 2020, I have noticed a significant decrease in motivation from my clients in their everyday lives. I tend to normalize this as a possible disruption in the dopamine pathways of his/her/their brains. What is the correlation? Since March of last year, many of us have lost the routines of our daily lives (e.g. going to a specific exercise class at a specific time as our self-care outlet, not being able to go out to dinner with friends on Friday nights, practices and games being cancelled). A way to work with this feeling is to try and rewire the reward circuits in your brain with a technique called behavioral activation.
Behavioral activation is a technique often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically, this skill involves intentionally scheduling rewarding activities throughout the day or week. Behavioral activation can help someone out of a period of feeling low on motivation by intentionally scheduling and challenging the person to take on small and manageable tasks. As the person completes the tasks, they can begin to feel satisfaction that gradually restores the drive that fuels motivation. Want to give it a try? Think about practicing a new or old hobby you enjoy, like playing an instrument, painting, or playing lacrosse. At first, you will want to practice just a little bit each day so the task does not feel overwhelming. Over time, this will build up the feeling of having energy and motivation.
It is truly about training yourself to seek out a reward.
This neurotransmitter can affect not only mood, but your digestion and it plays an important role in sleep. Serotonin does not cause happiness but it can help a person shift out of a bad mood and into a better one.
The takeaway here is that when you are able to demonstrate control over different aspects of your life, you are better able to experience happiness, particularly when there is little to no control over other things in life.
Developing psychological flexibility as a top performing athlete requires goal setting. With that said, my athletes are taught very early on to learn and develop the "3's for MVP's" when goal setting. What are the 3's for MVP's you ask? Keep reading to find out!
I was recently working with a young athlete whose obsessive and compulsive thoughts from their OCD was leading them to over-training and as a result of over-training, injury. The person's passion for their specific sport and the goal of making an NCAA Division 1 team lead them to develop the explicit thoughts of "something is not-just-right", which subsequently led to the development of behaviors on the court reflecting the "not-just-right" thoughts.
This athlete was getting stuck in individual workouts for hours that lead to significant feelings of sadness, anxiety and an increase risk of injury. When I began working with this goal-driven, and highly motivated individual, we wanted to focus on setting achievable goals they can work on in between our sessions. This is where I introduced them to the "3's for MVP's":
The 3's for MVP's:
1. Emotional Goals - how you feel
2. Outcome Goals - the result you get
3. Behavioral Goals - what you do
Once I introduced the 3's for MVP's, I pointed out the most effective practice focuses on goal #3. Using this model, the client began to shift the training routine to intentionally planning for X number of repetitions of multiple skills, rather than X number of successes overall. Their workouts have become more diverse, robust, flexible, and less time-consuming. And the ultimate result? The client's mood AND athletic performance have improved considerably!
On the topic of self-awareness, are you aware that self-awareness makes you impenetrable to judgment?
Say your name is John and I walk up to you and call you banana. You would most likely give me a strange look and know that I am wrong because you know your name is John. So me calling you banana is almost funny in a way because it is just not true.
This same way of thinking can be applied to judgment and self-awareness because when you take the time to get to know who you truly are and begin to understand WHY you are the way you are, when someone else judges you, it becomes the John to the banana situation. You just know that what someone else is saying is not true.
So instead of thinking "does this person know something about me that I don't?" You think "this person just does not know me so I am not going to waste my time giving them my energy".
Get to know yourself so that you can be the one that holds the power over judgments that simply do not belong to you.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a board certified mental health professional in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.