How to recognize when an athlete might be struggling
~4 min read
Maybe you’re feeling off, tired, or “meh,” or just not quite like yourself. If these feelings are lasting and impacting everything from your athletic performance to everyday tasks, like eating, sleeping, and hanging out with friends, it could mean you’re struggling with depression and it might be time to reach out for support.
While research finds that exercise can help improve symptoms of depression, this does not mean that athletes are immune to or can out-train the condition. Depression impacts over 17 million adults in the United States per year (National Institute of Mental Health “Major Depression,” 2017), and many challenges that athletes face, such as injury, performance pressures, career transitions and termination, and unique everyday stressors, increase the chances they will experience symptoms of depression during their careers or over their lifetimes.
As with many mental health conditions, depression feeds off of silence and misunderstanding. In this article, we shed light on common symptoms associated with depression, including low mood, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, and decreased interest & pleasure. Being more aware of these symptoms might nudge you to seek support or allow you to offer your support to a teammate or loved one who is struggling.
Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, emptiness, and guilt are common symptoms associated with depression. Maybe you feel more tearful or irritable than usual, even over small matters, and maybe you’re questioning or doubting your self-worth more often. As an athlete, you might also feel mounting pressure to remain outwardly optimistic around your coaches and teammates and during practices and games. The pressure to appear okay can make you feel even more hopeless and exhausted.
Check-in: Are you feeling down, empty, or hopeless more often than not?
Sleep is an incredibly important aspect of health and well-being. As athletes, we know that maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is crucial to our performance. Depression can interfere with sleep patterns by causing you to oversleep, have trouble sleeping, or feel sleepy throughout the day despite a full night of rest.
Check-in: Do you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep? Are you sleeping more than usual or feeling tired despite getting a full night of rest?
Changes in appetite are also associated with depression. Maybe you feel less interested in preparing meals for yourself or in eating around others due to the energy these activities require. Unexpected changes in your eating habits or unintentional fluctuations in your weight could be signs that depression is impacting your appetite.
Check-in: Do you have a poor appetite or do you find yourself overeating?
A general lack of liveliness might make you move, speak, and/or react slower than usual. As an athlete, you are likely extra in-tune with your body, so this sense of lethargy might be especially noticeable. Additionally, teammates and coaches who are used to both being aware of and analyzing your movements might notice these changes during interactions or practices.
Check-in: Do your thoughts, conversations, and movements feel sluggish?
While it’s common to feel distracted every so often, constantly feeling unable to focus might be a sign of depression. You might be particularly indecisive and confused, and your mind might feel murky. Simple decisions, such as what to have for dinner or whether to hang out with a friend, might feel impossible. A constant need to be distracted from your own thoughts and feelings might also make it difficult for you to feel invested in what is happening around you. This ongoing, internal game of tug of war is another reason why you might feel especially fatigued.
Check-in: Are you having more trouble than usual concentrating throughout the day (e.g. while having conversations, watching TV, or attending class)?
Decreased Interest and Pleasure
One of the beautiful aspects of being an athlete is the ability to consistently put time and energy into pursuits that bring you joy and purpose. However, when you are experiencing symptoms of depression, you might feel numb toward activities you used to enjoy. It might feel like you’re constantly competing in an empty arena or you’re running a race without a finish line. You might feel less like yourself as you no longer appreciate previously enjoyable interests and activities, and you might start to ask yourself, “What’s the point of all of this hard work?” or “Why does everyone else seem to care so much?” This decreased interest and pleasure in previously enjoyed activities is known as anhedonia.
Check-in: Do you have little interest or pleasure in doing things you used to enjoy?
Thoughts of Self-Harm and Death
Thoughts of self-harm and death are serious and life-threatening symptoms of depression. If you have felt like hurting yourself or if you have harmed yourself in any way, please consider immediate help. Although attempting to alleviate your pain through destructive measures might seem like the only way to feel better, there are always alternative ways to overcome feelings of hopelessness.
Check-in: Do you have urges to harm yourself? Do you have thoughts of death?
If you or a loved one need immediate assistance, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or call 911.
If you have experienced any combination of these symptoms for most of the days for at least two weeks, then you might be experiencing depression. Although these symptoms might make you feel like it isn’t worth getting help, research shows that treatment is effective for depression (National Institute of Mental Health “Depression,” 2018). Seeking support from a mental health professional can help you lift some of that weight off of your shoulders. Check out “Gameplan: Should I Try Therapy” if you’re curious about seeking support.
Heads-up: Keep in mind that while the symptoms we mention relate to depression and correlate with the DSM-5’s criteria for categorizing depression, they are only a handful of the symptoms that pertain to this particular mental health condition. You might be experiencing different but equally valid symptoms or conditions. Moreover, while this article can help you to better understand the symptoms of depression, only a mental health professional can accurately identify and diagnose depression and any other mental health condition. Connecting with a therapist can help you address these feelings and help you improve your mental health and well-being.