April is Stress Awareness Month, during which discussions around the causes of and cures for stress are encouraged.
We know that elite athletes are far from immune from struggling with stress at various points in their careers, with the pressures of being able to consistently perform on the highest level having the potential to overwhelm.
Here, winter Olympic medallist and BAC ambassador, Laura Deas, shares the stress management techniques which she has refined during the years she has spent in elite sport.
“I think stress is a subject that pretty much everyone will feel familiar with in some way, as it unfortunately seems an unavoidable part of life.
“I decided to check up on some statistics before writing this and it turns out that the figures are, frankly, quite shocking. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, and the three key causes for concern since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic are feelings of ‘disconnection, uncertainty, and a worrying loss of control’.
“Looking at this through an athlete lens, it seems that those three causes of stress are only too familiar. Most athletes I know (myself included!) thrive on a sense of purpose and control, so for many, a loss of this can be particularly difficult to deal with. We love to have targets, markers and plan for how to achieve our next goal – that’s part of what makes us driven and successful. Uncertainty goes hand in hand with a loss of control, and the pandemic has undoubtedly increased disconnection for athletes – whether that’s from their team, their sport, their normal support network or all of the above.
‘So, what steps can we take to manage our own stress levels? I know from personal experience that for an athlete already balancing lots of potential stressors in their lives, it might not take much to push us into a place where it feels difficult to balance everything – and once that starts to impact training or competition it can become an ugly vicious circle that’s difficult to stop.
“Personally, I find that talking to someone is usually really helpful – the act of verbalising what is causing stress can be a step in the right direction even if you can’t solve the issue straight away. As well as verbalising the problem, the fact that you are connecting with someone can feel really therapeutic. Possibly the only positive of those statistics I mentioned at the beginning is that it’s highly likely that anyone you speak to about stress will be able to relate!
“I also find that being active can be positive – I got into walking regularly during lockdown and I think the act of getting some fresh air and taking time for myself is definitely a good thing. This might sound strange coming from an athlete as we already do lots of exercise, but it’s more the act of doing something different that I think is key. As well as being great for your body, it can also give you valuable time for reflection, and a change of scenery can help you feel refreshed. Coupled with that, trying to get good quality sleep can really transform how you feel and put you in a stronger position to deal with what life throws at you – I know I often feel like I can think about a problem more rationally after a good night’s sleep.
“Finally, an activity that helps mindfulness can be a good addition to your day. I don’t necessarily mean sitting still trying to clear your mind (that has never worked for me) but instead finding an activity that helps you to lose yourself in the moment. For me that might be getting lost in a book (audiobooks are also great if you are on the move) or wandering around in the garden and noticing the small things that are changing day by day. Anything that occupies your mind in a way that allows you to be completely absorbed in the present moment.”