December 12, 2018, by Issy

Sport and Mental Health

Sport and mental health go hand in hand. In both good ways, such as the release of endorphins and spending time with like-minded friends having a positive effect on mental health, and in not-so-good ways, when overtraining, obsession and perfectionism come into play.

I personally am a bit of a water-baby, having grown up by the Thames and spending time at my grandparents by the sea. I used to swim, and now sail and row competitively: it’s my 9thand 8thyear of doing each sport respectively. However, there have been points in both sports for me where I have fallen out of love with them, due to the immense pressure I felt under to perform highly and meet unrealistic targets I’d set myself.

It’s called ‘hitting the wall’ when you step over the line into overtraining (I believe cyclists call it ‘bonking’ which I do like the name of). Your body is so stretched to the point where energy reserves get to zero, and you stop abruptly, (like literally hitting a wall). You usually physically cannot keep going. Of course, this has obvious physical effects, such as exhaustion, pain and illness, but the subconscious mental effects can also be profound.

Anger towards yourself can be common, and denial that the cause is down to overtraining can be felt (After all, surely more training means your body is stronger to cope with this, no?). A fear of hitting that point again can mean you feel afraid to stretch yourself too far, so cannot reach your full potential. It’s really unpleasant, and that’s why sports at high levels tend to stick to strict training schedules to avoid this, which often incorporate ‘down’ weeks, where things are less intense to allow recovery periods. This literally keeps athletes at the top of their game, physically, and just as importantly in some sports, psychologically,

So, why keep going? Why do a sport if it just leads to inevitable pain? The answer, any athlete will tell you, is that they love it, and chemically in the brain, it is a genuine love – serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are all released by exercise, which lead to feelings of euphoria, happiness and love. This is why, in psychiatric patients, those who take up a sport often note significant improvements in their mood – by doing sport, the brain is making the very hormones antidepressants replace by itself.

Sport can be something to focus on which isn’t your condition or how you feel about things at that exact moment. It is a perfect distraction, which is often what therapists say you need to find to help combat intrusive thought processes. Having a place where you can leave behind your everyday life and all the worries that come with it, be it a gym, or even just a block of houses you can run around, can be so useful in helping overcome emotional upset.

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