Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ian Thorpe’s struggle - Is it part of a larger issue?


Photo Source: freedigitalphotos.com artzsamui

Whilst the media concentrates on one aspect of Ian Thorpe’s recent interview regarding his private life, I was more interested in his struggles with depression. 
For me it begs the question…why have so many Australian athletes, particularly swimmers, struggled since their retirement?

Is it possible that elite athletes are more vulnerable than the general population to problems when they return to “civilian” life? Is it possible that what makes them so good as athletes, could work against them later in life?

Consider the spate of incidences we have had among retired swimmers -Grant Hackett, Geoff Huegill and Ian Thorpe all having very public personal struggles. And making the papers for all of the wrong reasons.

So what is going on?

Let’s look at the problem in context. To be an elite athlete, especially a swimmer, requires enormous discipline and a huge amount of structure, purpose and determination in your life.

Your diet is controlled. Your social life is controlled. Your day is highly regimented. And, for most of them, this dedication starts before they are teens.

For many, they are also retired before the age of 30.

Now, in order to function in this extreme way effectively, most athletes lean towards something called dichotomous thinking. To lay people, this is referred to as black or white thinking or all or nothing thinking.

In the world of elite athletes, this is a huge advantage because when they are on, they are on, and nothing stops them. They push past pain, past injury, past fatigue. They won’t give up because they’re tired or feeling low or tempted by other pursuits.

The down side is, that when they’re off, they’re off!

When they retire, their lives change completely overnight.  From having so much structure imposed on them to…nothing, unless they organize it themselves. They become ordinary ‘Joes’ and have to deal with immense uncertainties regarding their future, relationships and ordinary daily life. For the first time for many of them, they also have to deal with their emotions.

And of course, the dichotomist (black and white) way of thinking they’ve been applauded for until now doesn’t work well in the ‘real world’.  Most of the world doesn’t operate in a black or white way.  It’s all shades of grey. 

There may be some active press, or requests for charity and media appearances but not for long.  And it’s time to consider a normal job, further education, a career. If by now they haven’t made a decision or invested their earnings to create an income, what is the next step?

Now many become stuck, as they wonder, ‘what do I do next? I’ve been training for this my whole life, I hadn’t thought beyond this. What do I do?’

This sudden loss of structure (quite early as many athletes retire in their early to mid 20’s) causes many to turn to drugs or excess binging.  And it’s this point where depression may become a problem.

‘Real life’ requires cognitive flexibility

Elite athletes risk falling into levels of anxiety and or depression as they struggle to cope with their new unstructured life. There must be more support and a gradual removal of structure as they mourn the number one relationship they’ve had in their life until now. Between them and their sport.

The vulnerability to emotional issues in elite athletes has certainly been drawn to our attention over the years as time and time again, they are found and exposed (often by the relentless media) engaging in self-destructive activities.

I believe that these elite sportsmen and women are, as a group, particularly vulnerable to depression and anxiety.  And I question whether this aspect of their lives, that of returning to ‘normal life’ after retirement, is addressed realistically and properly by their management and the sporting associations to which they belong.

Ian Thorpe has struggled since retiring from swimming with returning to ‘real life’ for the reasons outlined above.  We wish him all the best for the future.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Managing Anxiety - Getting Your Head Around It!

Managing Anxiety Getting Your Head Around it!
Using internal powers of thought and reasoning to fight anxiety gives the anxious person the strength to be in charge of their own recovery.  Gordon Young outlines how its possible to control anxiety from within if youre willing and able to use the mental tools you already possess. 
Regaining Control over Catastrophes
A common issue for those who suffer anxiety is differentiating between what they can and cant control. 
The truth is, we can control very little outside ourselves. At best, we can influence others, or the course of events we are directly involved in (in a small way).  The world is far too big and unpredictable for a single human to have power over it. 
Many parents understand this when they realise they dont even have control of the small human they created, and yet some tie themselves in knots trying to control every experience and situation their child is placed into.  Sadly, this behaviour often has the effect of making the child anxious too.
Learning that you dont have control of external events is a tough lesson. But there is good news.  And its this:
Anything inside us IS within our control.
We may not control our every random thought, but we do control what we focus on, listen to and engage with internally.  This is an immense power we should embrace.
·       We choose which thoughts, feelings and voices we give attention to.
·       We choose our actions and our inactions.
·       We choose what we focus on and what we ignore in the world around us. And nobody and nothing controls us without our compliance.
·       We choose the risk assessment and decide whether we're comfortable with the uncertainty in the situation.
·       We choose whether or not we listen to our fears.
A Convenient Truth
Anxiety is generated from within.  It is not an external force. It is important to help sufferers recognise they are creating their own anxiety.
Recognition and acknowledgement that we can choose what we worry about and decide what concerns we are going to take seriously can change the way we think.
Teaching an anxious person they are in fact, able to control their internal reactions to the events life throws at them can be a reliable antidote to anxiety.
Uncertainty isn’t always bad
The anxious person sees a lack of clarity for the future as a bad thing.  They wish to know everything that will follow so they are never caught off guard. 
But in reality, a life of complete certainty would be boring.  It is the uncertain spaces where novelty and surprise exist. A certain life would be devoid of newness and variety.  It is also the uncertain spaces that harbour all of our potentials.
It may be hard to convince an anxious person that there is good in uncertainty.  But its an important step to take. 
People who are not anxious accept it is virtually impossible to create a life where there is no uncertainty.  In contrast, an anxious person has a tendency to catastrophise the future.  That is, everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
In reality, the future the anxious person is so very worried about will be both good and bad but it will mostly be neutral.  Just life, normal and boring. To predict and fear only negative experiences is a distortion.
A negative future is usually no more likely than a positive future, and ultimately, neither has happened yet. It is unwritten.
A way to manage this fear is to plan for the worst.  Ask yourself, if the situation Im worried about does go badly, what will I do?  Formulating a plan to deal with the worst-case scenario takes away the fear and the feeling of helplessness. 
Making a plan answers the what if question anxious people constantly ask themselves diminishes the unknowns and they lose there poignancy if there is a plan to combat it. 
Useful thinking versus over analysis
Being able to clearly think though a problem is a very valuable skill.  In contrast, stewing for hours on a problem and overanalysing every potential outcome is not a good habit to form. 
Its hard to tell how much analysis of a problem is good, and when does it become over analysis? Dr Michael Yapko suggests that useful analysis leads you to a decision or an action. Over-analysis or excessive rumination tends to loop you back in to the problem.
Overthinking a problem is also a concern because it can blur the assessment of risk and blow it out of proportion to the problem. 
Of course, telling an anxiety sufferer they think too much is not helpful.  Instead, be constructive by assisting them to come to a conclusion or an action and (this is the hard part) to move on once this is done.  Returning to the problem will result in more over analysis. 
One thing you can do is cover off all the factors that you can have some reasonable certainty about.  There are usually very predictable outcomes for particular actions, and only a limited range of likely responses in a given situation.
By considering these options, we may not cover of all the uncertainties but we can minimise much of the ambiguity around a future event.  Knowing these likely outcomes can help the anxious person feel more comfortable about the future and break the cycle of overthinking.
Learn to compartmentalise
This is simply when you recognise there is a time and place for everything.

It is the ability to let go, to park events and thoughts that are not going to serve you in the situation that youre currently in (eg. a meeting, trying to sleep) and be able to pick them up again if necessary.
Before a line of thinking takes you too far from where it started, stop and decide whether its appropriate or timely, considering your location and companions.  If not, stop.  Put it aside for later.  And when you come back to it, you may find its not such a problem after all. 
The way forward? Recognition, acknowledgement and gentle guidance.
Recognising the entrenched habits and thought processes of someone with anxiety is a much more productive way of helping them deal with their struggle.  An anxious person thinks very differently to a non-anxious one.  Their priorities and concerns stem from different places. 

Acknowledgment of this will allow the family and friends of the anxious person to validate their loved ones concerns and then, to begin to help by re directing or rechanneling the anxious thoughts in a more constructive direction.