As a mental health expert specializing in working with elite and professional athletes, playing a sport won't "solve" or "cure" issues related to mental health.
What I generally observe is a disconnect occurring between the mind and body, affecting performance, and ultimately affecting emotional safety and health. This cycle circulates in one big loop, or what I love to phrase as a "pattern".
At the same time, it is also important to recognize that an athlete is still a human being under the helmet or uniform he or she wears.
Just because a person can compartmentalize and carry pain well does not mean it is not heavy for that person.
With Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy becoming popularized as a mental health treatment, I would like to spend some time with you today talking about the various mechanisms of trauma and how it affects our brain and its functioning.
A primary question I often receive centers on the question of "what is dissociation" and "will I dissociate during EMDR?". Dissociation is a survival oriented process. Dissociation is the way the brain has the ability to take something that is so overwhelming when a patient cannot escape a stressful event and/or is caught in the freeze response.
So for example, there might be a child being hurt by a caregiver. Children are often too small to run away or fight back. They are the victim of the grown up. What the brain does during this type of scenario is that it allows the child to be there and not be there at the same time. In other words, the dissociative process of the brain is protecting the child so they can survive the experience.
EMDR therapy helps patients move through the dissociative process, which is inherent in any kind of trauma. EMDR helps the patient move through the experience with a much reduced rate of emotional arousal.
For the previous thirty years when trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were added to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), it only categorized trauma as specifically large or “Big T” events. However, adverse life experiences or “little traumas” can also have a major impact on social, emotional, psychological, and physiological functioning.
I personally choose not to define trauma by “little” or “big” events. What is significant to me in my professional opinion is how the smaller, more repetitive patterns of events become recorded in the nervous system and because of its repetition, these experiences gradually accumulate in the brain.
Where in the brain does this all get stored? Please allow me to introduce to you, if you have not already learned about the amygdala. The amygdala is within the right hemisphere of the brain, known for responding to a heightened sense of arousal. The amygdala translates information that it receives from the other parts of the brain into an emotional response. This type of response can manifest in a variety of ways within the body (e.g. heightened blood pressure, more rapid breathing, blood moving from the central part of the body to the peripheral, and the release of adrenaline).
In my next post, I will continue to discuss two key symptom behaviors that are congruent with trauma: avoidance and rumination. Stay tuned!
Athletes face various challenges in their career on and off the sports field. I feel that a greater knowledge of the conceptualization of mindfulness and its impact on psychological skills could truly shift the way athletes maintain and even improve performance before, during, and after game time. In the unforgiving environment of professional sports, dysfunctional thinking can impact and interfere with performance.
When working with professional athletes, I love collaborating with my clients to develop specific strategies to address dysfunctional thinking patterns and other challenges. Coping strategies offer athletes additional psychological opportunities to enhance his or her chances of performing at his or her highest level under very demanding, stressful, and sometimes even hostile conditions.
Before going any further in this blog post, I believe it is important to give credit to where credit it is due. Mindfulness is popular and used generously among mental health professionals as treatment for a variety of mental health disorders, including most notably, anxiety and trauma-related disorders. My two personal favorite types of Mindfulness interventions are Mindfulness Based- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I was first introduced to Dr. Kabat-Zinn and MBSR in graduate school. Although I attended Stony Brook University, I was offered the opportunity to enroll in a research-based elective, dually offered by Columbia University and it's Advanced Consortium on "Evidence Based Practices", and in reflection, I am so happy I accepted the opportunity!
High performance athletes can experience a variety of performance-inhibiting stressors. Most frequently, my clients come to session and process topics that induce stress such as: unrealistic expectations because of perfectionism, competition anxiety, anger and other negative emotions, fear of failure, perceived pressure, and avoidance behavior. Additionally, other factors that can negatively impact performance include: having an avoidant coping style, interpersonal problems, or life-balance difficulties.
However, similar to the most successful surgeons, athletes have the distinct superpower to transform stressors automatically into fuel in order to meet the specific demands of the game. In other words, athletes use this automatic process, similar to autopilot as a way to use stress as energy, resulting in enhanced performance. Most frequently this superpower is an alternative label for more well-known defense mechanisms such as "compartmentalization" and "sublimation".
So if athletes have metaphorical black belts in compartmentalizing and channeling emotional and psychological stress into elite performance fuel, why are we focusing on Mindfulness? Mindfulness focuses on changing the function, not the form of behavior, emotion, thinking, or how we experience things. Mindfulness aims to change the relationship of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has no desire to change the content of those thoughts and emotions. How can this be integrated into elite sports? Perhaps breathing exercises can be introduced in a non-sport setting. Athletes can integrate mindfulness exercises directly during a big play when they focus on the breath or letting go of thoughts of pain or discomfort. One of my favorite techniques is using a body scan exercise. Again, thinking of how this can be woven into the tapestry of sport, a body scan exercise can be easily completed during the cool-down at the end of practice or training.
I don’t want to suggest that using mindfulness will automatically lead to major shifts in performance overnight. But down the road with further inclusion of mental health support in professional sports, I think we will start to see a happier and overall healthier group of professional athletes and role models.
Breathing is seriously underrated. Did you know you could improve your mood, contain anxiety, enhance sports performance, and pump the breaks just by taking a few breaths?
In previous posts, I have talked about the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. In short, the vagus nerve connects the brain to everything from the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, and intestines to different glands in the body that produce enzymes and hormones, influencing digestion, metabolism, and much more.
The vagus nerve's influence on your lungs and heart and the connection to your brain is pretty awesome, considering this trio combined controls your body and governs your mind. To manage your state of mind and stress levels, all you have to do is activate the calming parasympathetic branches of the nervous system.
Note: we typically do not have direct control over our nervous system, and we can't just press a button to turn the parasympathetic pathways on like a light switch. However, if you try to hold your breath for just a brief moment and then intentionally exhale very slowly, you can stimulate the vagus nerve and begin to feel grounded within your body and mind.
In other words, I am encouraging you to train your breath. Swimmers are exceptionally good at this skill. Yoga is another activity that focuses on breath with movement. By actively focusing on your breath and the movements of your diaphragm, your autonomic nervous system will begin to communicate with your lungs, heart, and other organs for instant relaxation.
Try to activate your own vagus nerve! How? Simply breathe out very slowly. Can you feel how your heart rate slows and your mind relaxes instantly?
Although I am writing about a new skill, I am still encouraging you to learn from yourself. You are your best friend. Nobody knows you and your situation better than yourself. If and when you need the support, I will be here for you. Just let me know if I can help.
What are the Yips?
The yips are technically defined as sudden motor skill failure. A perfectly executed pitch is necessary to strike out the opponent at bat; a football kicked in between the goal posts can be the game winning goal; or a single short putt is necessary to win the tournament. Suddenly the athlete's hands or feet cramp up, and the shot or pitch goes wide. There is no clear explanation as to why pro athletes become inflicted by the yips, but studies suggest the yips are due to abnormalities in the electrochemical dialogue that occurs between neurotransmitters in the brain.
From a mental health perspective, overthinking appears to intensify the yips. In other words, concentrating too much may overshadow other important areas in the brain activated during sport, such as balance and timing. From my experience, athletes have a unique responsibility to compartmentalize on and off the field. With this in mind, sometimes the mental real estate being occupied and compartmentalized become overwhelmed. Thoughts, stressors, traumas, and underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder begin colluding with the areas of the brain that are focused specifically on sport performance. In my professional opinion, this is where I have found to be the sweet spot where athletes will get in his or her own way of performing a skill.
From my experience working with many athletes who have struggled with the yips, it is my professional opinion that athletes are not all doomed the first time they feel like they are experiencing this level of sport anxiety. I encourage coaches, athletes, and sports personnel alike to talk about the yips and mental health. Working with a mental health professional, or coach for the brain and body can greatly help athletes address the underlying issues causing the yips so he or she can get back in the game.
Signs and symptoms of the Yips:
-Physically responding in sport with jerking movements or freezing on a skill that was previously easy to execute
-Muscles feel tight or sore, interfering with ability to complete a skill
-Anxiety, tension, and feeling overwhelmed about completing a skill or task
-Performance anxiety about what others will think
-Repetitive and intrusive thoughts about the outcome of a skill and/or incompletion
Most frequently, the first line of defense is to search for quick fixes, promising lasting results with high rate of failure and relapse.
Connection between client and therapist is so important, if not the MOST important factor in any type of helping relationship. And like meeting new friends or dating, you aren't going to click with everyone and that is okay!
I feel that one of the best things about therapy is the abundance of therapists out there, and if you decide a therapist isn't a good match for you, then you don't need to go back! Of course, if you make the decision to find a new therapist, I encourage letting the existing therapist know. He or she may offer a session at no cost to you where he or she can offer a termination session. Termination is a gradual and completely NORMAL process of therapy and technically begins the first session of therapy. Your therapist should support this concept in treatment.
So where to begin? Please keep these things in mind when searching for a therapist you will vibe with:
I recently came across an article on the NBA's official website from March 12, 2019, describing a league-wide mental health initiative taking aim at addressing mental health and wellness issues for players.
This is wonderful news for athletes, the NBA, and families and loved ones of athletes as well! The battles professional athletes have with mental health issues shows that money nor fame can solve everything. More importantly, it shows mental illness does not discriminate. It can affect anyone.
Whether you are struggling with a mental health illness, or you simply want to perform better mentally, the first step to working on your mental-emotional health is to be unapologetically open with yourself and recognize the emotions you are feeling. Above all, don't feel scared to reach out if you need someone to talk to. I am here to support you in all areas of your health.
Mental health matters to everyone and I think this is an amazing step in the right direction for our athletes! You can read the original article by clicking here.
I came across this AWESOME picture by Michelle Rial the other day. Without hesitation I printed it, framed it, and now get to have this in my office to share with my clients.
I always find a way to incorporate The Beatles into my practice as a therapist and I am delighted to share this with you as well!
Enjoy your Friday and welcome to the month of March!
Hope you are having a great week so far! I want to share one of my most beloved quotes with you. This one is by Alan Cohen:
"Personal growth is not a matter of learning new information but of unlearning old limits"
Re-read it, let it marinate, and give yourself permission to notice where or how the quote "hits" you. Maybe the quote does nothing for you. Maybe it does something for you. Whatever your experience, become an observer just for this moment. What do you notice? Share your thoughts below!
Take a moment to scroll through these photos I took at the Jacksonville Zoo last weekend. And as you scroll through the photos, take just one moment to find one thing you notice about the tiger. Yes, just ONE thing...
Maybe your attention goes to the color of his fur, the detail in his stripes, or maybe you notice your own feelings about the tiger surfacing...
Perhaps by the time you get to the third image and you see the tiger practicing some mindfulness of his own, you will notice that this exercise took less than three swipes and a total of five minutes to do.
Therapy isn't meant to be a life sentence. Learning skills and techniques that you can apply to the real world is what I feel makes therapy a powerful investment.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a clinical psychotherapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.