“You’re Not Crazy!” : Drs. Tony L. Strickland and Paul G. Longobardi of the world-renowned Sports Concussion Institute discuss the anxiety and stress many professional athletes face when dealing with career threatening injuries, retirement or who have been released from their teams.
by Tony L. Strickland, M.S., PH.D. and Paul G. Longobardi, PH.D.
Imagine this scenario. John, who worked for ABC Corporation for 17 years, arrives at work to find out his job has been eliminated. John experiences a maelstrom of emotions including shock, anger, embarrassment, betrayal, anxiety, grief, loss of confidence, and worry, frustration and disbelief. He doesn’t know where to go or what to do. Unfortunately, “John’s” situation occurs on a daily basis across America.
With increased frequency, this scenario occurs among professional athletes who suffer career threatening injuries, retirement, or who are released from their teams. In the world of professional sports, these are major challenges for individuals who must compete for their jobs on a daily basis. Stress may build to the point where an athlete’s reaction to such life-altering events can include a range of emotions, including grief, devastation, anger, bitterness, alienation, identity loss, loneliness, anxiety and fear, as well as loss of confidence. Moreover, associated feelings of helplessness, depression, alcohol or other substance abuse, domestic violence and even suicide may be considered or, unfortunately occur. Notably, this spectrum of emotional turmoil may be experienced by the athlete’s loves ones who suffer right along with him or her.
The above mentioned psychological and behavioral reactions are anticipated responses to highly stressful circumstances in most individuals, including athletes. Anxiety and depression are frequent symptoms when athletes face a life without their sport and the accompanying adulation, camaraderie, sense of mastery/accomplishment, and the attainment of elite professional status with its associated benefits.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences. Many people feel anxious, or nervous, particularly when faced with a work problem or making an important decision such as ending a career. Anxiety “disorders” are different. For people with anxiety disorders, worry, fear, and tension can cause enough distress to interfere with a person’s ability to lead a normal life. Feeling depressed can be a normal reaction to loss, life’s struggles, or an injured self-esteem. But when feelings of intense sadness last for days to weeks and keep a person from functioning normally, the emotional dysphoria may be something more than sadness. It may very well be clinical depression, a treatable medical condition. If an athlete has thoughts of wanting to harm him/herself (suicide) or other people (homicide), we recommend several immediate steps. First, do not keep the thoughts/feeling to yourself. Share them with someone you trust, and seek professional help. At the same time, promise them not to do anything right away (i.e. give yourself some distance between thoughts and actions). If you cannot honestly assure them that you will not act on your suicide/homicidal thoughts, you must seek professional help immediately. Avoid drugs and alcohol; they only make thoughts of self-harm, or harming others stronger. Make your home safe by removing things you can use to hurt yourself/others, and go somewhere where you feel safe. Finally, take hope in the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of people do survive the painful feelings you may be having now. But do get professional help! Anxiety and depression may manifest in being aloof, moody, irritable, sad, tense, edgy, and sometimes explosive. However, there is nothing “crazy” or psychotic about the stress reactions. This is a common misconception keeping people experiencing stress from seeking help (i.e. “They’ll think I’m crazy”). It’s not true today. But untreated grief, loneliness, depression and anxiety can lead to unhealthy and adverse outcomes. Think of the job loss transition as a grief reaction, such as when we lose a loved one. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the five stages or grief and loss to include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If you think of the end of a playing career as a major loss, which it is, then you will see that most players go through a very normal sequence of stages. And don’t forget that the professional athlete is not retiring at age 60 or 65 but much younger, facing a longer life in retirement. At least until a new career develops for the post-professional athlete.
Some themes which have come out of the neurobehavioral research indicate that the professional athlete’s post-sport adjustment may also depend on other factors, including having a range of social support instead of being isolated, the strength of their athlete identity outside of athletics. That means while playing, did they have a life with people out of sports of were all their friends athletes? Finally, how much pre-retirement planning did the athlete do for life after sports? More planning is healthier and more protective. Having a strong spiritual foundation also has been found to buffer the pain of anxiety and depression.
No matter what you experience as an athlete or the loved one of an athlete, there are resources available to assist you. At the Sports Concussion Institute, we specialize in the comprehensive treatment of sport-induced neurobehavioral injuries. We have resources to help with the emotional, cognitive, and neurological consequences of post playing life. There is good life before, during and after sports – it just may look and feel differently at each stage.