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In December of last year, I went to the emergency room with what I thought was a heart attack—my chest was tight, my heart was racing, and I believed I was dying. After running all the tests and ruling out life-threatening causes, I was told to visit my primary-care physician, who delivered the news: I had experienced a panic attack.
“Have you been under stress lately?” my doctor asked. I shook my head no. Although I had a lot going on—a new book coming out, a move, and a load of deadlines—I could handle it, and I told my doctor as much.
“Your body is trying to tell you otherwise,” was the reply. “Maybe it’s time to ask for help.”
As an endurance athlete, this was a tough concept for me to wrap my head around. After all, I once did an Ironman with a broken rib—surely I could tough this out. (Spoiler alert: I could not tough it out. It really was time to ask for help.)
When it comes to our physical performance, athletes are often quick to recruit the experts, be it a coach, a nutritionist, or physical therapist. But when it comes to mental health, we often become do-it-yourselfers, Googling symptoms and quietly worrying if we are, in fact, going crazy.
“Our world has long insisted that healthy adulthood means being emotionally independent and self-sufficient,” says San Francisco-based therapist Laura Firestone. “To be independent is a sign of grit, strength, and toughness. Endurance athletes are even more susceptible to the myth that mental health should be dealt with in isolation.”
Endurance athletes, who often pride themselves on pushing through the pain, often apply that approach to their own mental health instead of creating a support network. But out of anyone, runners and triathletes should know that we do better when we do it together.
“We are not supposed to experience things in isolation,” Firestone says. “The need for connection is our first and most primary instinct that buffers us from stress and makes us stronger in the face of life’s challenges. In training, we turn to a training partner, a team, a coach, or a mentor. Our connections with others allow us to overcome, heal, get support, and improve our physical state. Mental health is no different.” Check out our tips above for getting better, together.
Create a Support Network
In times of stress, anxiety, or depression, social support can be key. Firestone recommends recruiting a “team,” with each member playing a role:
- Cuddle Up to Loved Ones
- Studies show that physical touch from a loved one, friend, or even a pet can reduce stress hormones and boost mood.
- Reach Out to Close Friends
- “Athletes, in particular, could use the emotional connection to help when faced with emotional stress from training, competitions, performance failings, fatigue, and injuries,” Firestone says.
- Let Your Coach or Mentor in on Your Emotional World
- Your mental state can often impact your physical performance.
- Go to Your Primary Care Physician to Rule Out Any Medical Issues
- Your physician can also recommend medical and alternative therapies, as well as refer you to a therapist.
- Attend Therapy as Needed
- “Just like you’d turn to a coach for expertise around training, you’d want to turn to a trained professional for your mental health,” Firestone says. “Only with a professional can you diagnose and treat the symptoms you are experiencing.”