We expected incredible physical achievements and lots of heart-in-our-mouths moments from the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, but this summer has unexpectedly brought mental health to the forefront like never before in world class sport.
Multi-gold medal winning American gymnast Simone Biles has been praised for how openly she’s discussed her reasons for pulling out of the all-around final, after also walking away during the women’s team final. She said at a press conference she was putting her “mental health first” and that focusing on yourself “shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it.”
It comes after Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon to prioritise her mental health. She was knocked out of the Olympics in the third round, clearly off her best and citing afterwards that she had felt “a lot of pressure” competing in her first Olympics.
In the past athletes may have quietly bowed out of competitions – perhaps hiding the real reasons for doing so – now, two of the very best in the world are talking openly about mental health, and that’s a huge step, both in sport and in the workplace in general.
Dr Jane McNeill, chartered psychologist at mental health provider, Clinical Partners, says: “Both Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are exceptional young women, but that doesn’t mean to say they don’t have negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about themselves, like many of us do .”
Many people have likely neglected their mental health at some point in order to strive for excellence at work, so how do you know when it’s time to readdress the balance and prioritise your head? Here are some warning signs to look out for:
You think you need to be perfect
“Perfectionism is when we are striving to be flawless,” says McNeill. “[It] is associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems, because striving for that level of performance requires such a super-human effort.”
Perfectionism is particularly a problem if your identity becomes dependent on those standards, she adds. “‘I am only good enough if I am perfect’, is ultimately unsustainable.
“Excessive perfectionism gets in the way of happiness and if we’re constantly striving for perfection, it leaves us little chance to feel good about ourselves, which can be damaging to our self-esteem.”
You always feel like a failure
McNeill says feeling negatively about yourself at work is a big warning sign. Interestingly, feeling like a failure, yet being a perfectionist, can go hand in hand.
“If you find yourself constantly driving yourself to constantly achieve high levels of perfectionism, this is likely to have a significant effect on your wellbeing, often leading to negative automatic thinking, poor sleep, feelings of worthlessness, social isolation, depression and a persistent sense of failure.
“If you notice you’re constantly on edge, and feeling like a failure, yet continuing to set unachievable standards, then it’s time to step back,” she says.
You work long hours with no end point – and don’t know when to stop
“No one can work long hours indefinitely, so yes, you may have a deadline, but do make sure you do give yourself a break ,” McNeill says. Even if long hours are part of your job, “working in a sustainable way is imperative”.
Dr Kate Daley, psychology lead at workplace mental health platform Unmind, adds: “It’s really important to put boundaries in place between work and home, whether it’s turning off your work phone or keeping your laptop closed. Being accessible 24/7 is often unnecessary, it sets unrealistic expectations and is unsustainable. If you don’t disconnect, essentially you’re always at work.”
You’re struggling to make decisions
“Decision making is more challenging for those living with mental health conditions,” says McNeill, “in some cases, anxiety disrupts the decision-making regions of the prefrontal cortex.”
Biles described feeling “the twisties” – well known in the gymnastics world as a sort of mental block that can result in losing their sense of space in the air.
“When we’re experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety, we’re in threat mode – fight, flight, freeze or fawn – and this can totally interrupt our decision-making processes,” says McNeill. “Once we start to question ourselves, this can have huge implications to our confidence about making split-second decisions.” Something top athletes need to perform at their best.
You often can’t sleep and think about work in the middle of the night
“Work stress is inevitable, but it can sometimes get in the way of a good night’s sleep,” says McNeill. “Try to practise mindfulness, write down your worries or thoughts to offload and engage in enough physical activity during the day to improve sleep quality.”
You keep getting sick
Our physical and mental health are tied more closely than you might think. Daley says, “our body gives us warning signs when burnout is approaching, but we often attribute symptoms to something physical or ignore them completely.” For example an upset stomach, muscle pain or headaches.
“There may of course be a physical cause but we should also consider if stress is a factor. It’s important to pay attention to any changes in your body as it may be trying to tell you something – your body produces these sensations for a reason.”
Work might be going well, but the rest of your life is suffering
If you’re achieving great things at work but things are falling apart at home, and you don’t have any time to invest in the important relationships in your life or to pursue things that bring you pleasure and joy, it’s time to reassess the balance.
McNeill says: “We need to be making sure we spend time doing things that aren’t ‘perfect’ but are enjoyable. Make sure that everyday you do something pleasurable, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. Whatever it is, do it for its own sake, not because it’s about ‘achievement’.”
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