Physical Injury, Mental Pain

Emotional pain from your injury will typically heal once rehab is complete. When emotional changes trickle into life outside of sport, lasting beyond rehab, you may be showing signs of greater mental health concerns. If you’re struggling with mental health issues post-injury, you are not alone.

Frances Altick, a professional and NCAA tennis champion struggled with intense depression, anxiety, and struggled with binge eating and purging. Faced with isolation, Altick carried the weight of her declining mental health as she pursued her pro career. Ultimately, an ACL injury was “one of the best things to ever happen” to her. She stepped away from tennis and prioritized self-care. In therapy, Altick was vulnerable and discovered self-compassion.  

Depression

Injuries take away something valuable—the ability to play your sport—whether temporarily or permanently. Grief over this loss, sadness, or isolation can worsen into depression. Sometimes these symptoms linger beyond recovery. Some problematic behaviors to look for are frequent emotional outbursts, altered appetite, general disengagement leading to further isolation, and suicidal thoughts. If you, or someone you know, are showing signs of depression, don’t hesitate to seek counseling or therapy. With Altick, therapy for her depressive symptoms has allowed her to “believe that (she) is worthy of love and connection.”

Anxiety

Returning to sport after injury can be scary. It’s understandable to be nervous, however, anxiety can make you more susceptible to another injury. Watch for worsening signs such as stalling with return to play, heightened reactions to non-threatening scenarios, and magnification of smaller setbacks. There are many treatments for sport and injury related anxiety; reaching out to counselors or mental performance consultant can help you make forward progress. Post-treatment, Altick’s anxiety has faded and she’s comfortable being authentic and vulnerable, feeling more free than ever before.

Disordered Eating

Being robbed from your sport by injury can come with limited control over your recovery timeline. This overwhelming stress can cause shifts in self-perception. The likelihood of disordered eating increases as athlete’s search for sense of control. To prevent disordered eating during recovery, pay close attention to mood shifts, avoid fad diets, set healthy limits on your exercises, integrate more adaptive self-talk into your routine, and surround yourself with a strong support system. Some warning signs to look out for that help detect disordered eating include:

  • Concern over physical appearance (fear of losing/gaining weight and lost muscle tone)
  • Dehydration/fatigue/stress fractures from a weakened body
  • Strict eating patterns (binging and restricting)
  • Excessive training regimen, and significant weight loss.

If you, or someone you know, may be struggling with disordered eating, follow this link for more help! In Altick’s recovery, her disordered eating symptoms have been fading, and she’s better able to cope.  

Substance Abuse

Often, sports are seen as a way to escape daily life. It can be difficult when that escape is taken away by injury. You may start asking yourself “how can I manage my problems now?” While Altick tried to avoid feelings of isolation and disappointment with an eating disorder, other athletes escape through substance abuse. Marijuana and alcohol use might be perceived as helpful, even if they only provide a temporary “fix” for the woes of injury. Opioid abuse is becoming increasingly problematic, yet they are still commonly prescribed pain killers for injured athletes. If you are a coach or trainer for an athletic program, providing educational material on substance abuse and sports can be a vital prevention effort. If you are injured and turning to drugs or alcohol to help you cope with this loss, don’t put off seeking assistance!  

If you are a teammate, coach, trainer, or parent of an athlete who is struggling with mental health, make sure to pay attention to your boundaries. Trying to ignore or treat the problem yourself can potentially worsen it, but you can do your part in encouraging the athlete to seek professional care. One way to help is by reducing the stigma of seeking mental health treatment. As a significant player in this athlete’s life, you have a front row seat to pay attention to the signs of common mental health issues. Is the athlete under incredible pressure to look and perform a certain way? Have they exhibited noticeable mood shifts? Are they participating in risky behaviors (e.g., drinking, drugs, gambling)? Knowing that supportive roles can also be draining, seek your own support along the way and consider attending Al-Anon. As you contribute to the athlete’s support system you can dispel “just toughing it out” alone by encouraging a meeting with a mental health practitioner.

Athletes like Altick recognize that mental health is an epidemic, and that talking about these struggles can be difficult… the important thing is that we start the conversation. Don’t hesitate to speak up.

About the Author:

Alex Oldham
Master's student in Sport Psychology at Florida State University. Intern at Reaching Ahead Counseling and Mental Performance.

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