24 May by HPA/LiveWell Clinical Psychology

Physical activity is commonly recognized as beneficial in a variety of ways – it can prevent physical and cognitive decline, increase overall energy, sharpen memory, and help people feel happier, which is why sports and mental health are commonly linked.  The wide range of benefits associated with physical activity is linked to the effect exercise has on brain chemistry (exercise increases the brain’s concentration of norepinephrine, the brain chemical associated with moderating one’s stress response).

Exercise looks different from person to person, but for many, participating in sports is a main source of physical activity. And while sports can serve a significant therapeutic role in terms of mental health, there are also potential negative effects, which are rarely discussed. At HPA/LiveWell in Albany, New York, we strive to increase awareness about and de-stigmatize the issue of mental illness in sports.

The Negative Effects of Sports on Mental Health

While the physical strain athletes endure is well recognized and publicized, the mental health struggles are not.  And while psychological strain may occur due to physical injury, there are other negative effects of sports and mental health, especially when it comes to elite sports (i.e. professional athletes, college athletes, highly competitive sports, etc.). There are several variables that can impact an athlete’s mental health including:

  • Intense training schedules
  • Competition pressure
  • Lack of social connectedness outside of the sport
  • Little time for rest
  • Push for perfectionism
  • Burn out due to over-training
  • Physical injury
  • Aging out of the sport – which can lead to loss of identity, feelings of worthlessness, lack of purpose, etc.

Athletes are just as likely to suffer from mental illness as the rest of the population. This means that there are many who struggle with things like depression and anxiety in sports.  Yet, because an athlete’s physical health is often the area of focus, their emotional and mental health almost always take a backseat. And, for many athletes, mental illness is not something easily identifiable, at least not in the same way as a physical injury.

Additionally, according to many sports and mental health statistics, if an athlete is able to identify a mental health issue, they are far less likely to seek the necessary supports (when compared to non-athletes).  This is likely due to the stigma around mental illness (especially in the sports world), lack of education about the role of mental health on athletic performance, and/or the perception of seeking mental health treatment as a sign of weakness.

To find out more about sports and mental health or to learn about the mental health services offered at HPA/LiveWell in Albany, New York, contact us at (518) 218-1188.