College and professional athletes face immense pressure to perform—both physically and mentally. But, a combination of the longstanding stigma around mental illness and the expectation of “mental toughness” among athletes has long overshadowed the high-stress nature of competitive sport. Though athletes often receive substantial support in terms of maintaining their physical strength, infrastructure for mental health has lagged behind, as evidenced by star athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka recently opening up about mental-health issues. These bold and public stances, particularly in light of their large social-media followings, are now changing the game and bringing conversations about mental health in sport to the forefront.
This week’s episode of The Well+Good Podcast delves into how competitive athletes can create a balanced life off the court or field, with stress relief being a big piece of that. Host Taylor Camille speaks with Nina Westbrook, LMFT, a former Division I college basketball player turned therapist and founder of digital wellness platform Bene by Nina, and sports psychologist Angela Charlton, PhD, who have recently partnered on a workshop designed to teach athletes how to boost their mental fitness.
Listen to the full podcast episode here:
“Typically, in competitive sports, the focus is the physical output—what we’re achieving physically, whether we’re winning games, whether we’re injured,” says Westbrook. “But what it really takes is a balance between the psychological and the emotional, the social wellness and the physical wellness. You have to be physically healthy to be able to compete, but in order to compete at a high level constantly and continuously, you also have to be mentally strong and mentally fit.”
That reality applies to any high achievers who may find themselves defending against a high-stress environment. And just like athletes, anyone who is looking to perform at their peak level will benefit from equipping themselves with stress-management tools—and practicing using them—before they wind up facing off with stress. “It’s important to have practical tools to be able to balance [everything on your plate] so that when you face those tremendous times of stress or those stressful transitions, you know how to handle them,” says Dr. Charlton.
Below, find Westbrook and Dr. Charlton’s top tips for how to manage high stress like a star athlete, even if you don’t have an athletic bone in your body.
How to manage high stress like an elite athlete, according to an athlete-turned-therapist and sports psychologist
1. Bolster your social ties, and build a life you love outside of work
Strong relationships, like those with friends and family, are essential to both mental and physical wellbeing and can lend support when it comes to handling stress. As a former college athlete herself, Westbrook emphasizes that people who hold a high-stress position or one that’s deeply wrapped up with their identity, need to enrich their lives outside of their jobs. That means maintaining friendships and relationships with family members, and doing things outside of your work that you bring you joy (yes, even if your work itself is joy-sparking). After all, your job isn’t the entirety of who you are.
2. Make time (even if it’s just a few minutes) for mindfulness
No matter what your day looks like, it’s key to fit stress-busting mindfulness practices into it. Yoga is Westbrook’s mindfulness activity of choice because of how it combines breathwork, mindful meditation, and movement. Dr. Charlton recommends diagphragmatic breathing, which can have a physically de-stressing effect—research has shown it can lower cortisol levels—and grounding techniques to really orient yourself to the present.
All of these practices can be effective for stress management and relief even in short bursts. If you really feel strapped for time, though, consider working mindfulness into your shower, says Dr. Charlton, “and just really utilize all their senses.” To do this, simply turn your focus toward the sounds, smells, sights, and textures you’re experiencing in the shower; this has a way of distracting your mind from the other stressful thoughts that might occupy it.
Another tip for people low on time and high on stress? Try simply turning the lights off for 10 minutes and focusing on being present where you are to ground yourself, says Dr. Charlton.
3. Redirect stressful thought patterns
Thoughts can feed and exacerbate stress, particularly when they distort your perception of reality into something much more negative or upsetting than it really is. These kinds of thoughts are called cognitive distortions and include things like, “If I make a mistake, I will lose my worth and value,” and “I must get everything on my list done to be or feel accomplished.”
To avoid these negative spirals, it’s important to first recognize that “the way you think about something is going to significantly impact how you behave,” says Dr. Charlton. Being aware of this reality could help you identify when you’re stuck in a stress-inducing thought pattern.
If you do catch yourself thinking in negative circles, pause to examine the factual information of the situation, and assess whether your thoughts are truly rooted in those facts. Dr. Charlton gives the example of passing by a friend at a shopping mall who doesn’t say “hi” to you, and then resorting to thinking that they are mad at you or don’t like you—both of which are conclusions that could cause stress. By instead thinking through the facts of the situation, you’d also realize that it’s possible this friend never actually saw you. This realization can help reframe the interaction from something upsetting to something much more benign.
For more tips from Westbrook and Dr. Charlton on how to get ahead of and manage stress in high-stress environments, listen to the full podcast episode here.