Considering the close relationship between physical activity and mental health, physical exercises release endorphins that provide relief from stress, anxiety and depression. Being a professional athlete may seem like a dream job to many. Elite athletes, such as Olympians or Ironman triathletes, carry an air of invincibility and portray the image of focus, motivation, determination and strength. However, stardom and fame showered on the successful athletes do not come without its own pitfalls.
It is shocking to realize that many elite athletes are susceptible to substance abuse and mental health issues. The high-pressure environment of the sport and the compulsion to impress fans and demanding coaches may become too much to handle even for a stellar performer.
Such an increased level of stress make them swerve towards drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and other mental disorders. While exhaustion from training and competing lead to depression and anxiety in some athletes, physical wear and tear increases inflammation and worsens the mental condition. Moreover, after retirement, athletes witness a range of depressive symptoms due to the intense feeling of sudden loss or chaos.
Addiction to natural high triggered by exercise increases risk for addiction in athletes
As such, the entire process of exercise itself can be addictive in nature and can prompt many athletes to develop an addiction in future. A growing body of research reveals that exercise stimulates the reward pathway of the brain that releases the brain chemicals like dopamine that is responsible for triggering pleasurable and euphoric feelings like drugs abused for recreation. Over time, athletes can become addicted to the natural high produced from exercising. Due to this, elite athletes may develop a compelling obsession with training that resembles addiction.
As a result, when athletes retire from the sport or are rested for some time, they may start experiencing a range of withdrawal symptoms, such as restlessness, irritability, anxiety or a craving. These symptoms can turn them toward drugs and alcohol to satisfy their cravings and surge an incredible level of high. Since the neural pathways for addiction are already primed, athletes are at a greater risk of developing an addiction.
Moreover, injured athletes may find themselves to be the victims of the opioid epidemic post-surgery. In addition to the primed neural pathways, some of the key traits that propel athletes to succeed in competitions, such as risk-taking, spirit of competitiveness, etc., can also drive them toward drug and alcohol abuse.
Understanding the link between sports and addiction
A strong relationship between an intense level of sports participation and addiction has been established in a study led by Laurie de Grace from the University of Alberta. The study was originally planned for identifying the pathway to addiction by analyzing people in the domain of sports. However, the study was flipped by focusing on the people from a sporting background recovering from addiction.
The study, published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, interviewed 21 people recovering from addiction. The majority of the participants were men aged 28 to 60 years. The participants were categorized based on their level of sport engagement ranging from recreational athletes (people who played sports as a youngster but dropped due to substance abuse) to elite athletes.
Though various sports were represented in the study, most of the participants were from team sports like hockey. The findings of the study highlighted some of the key patterns regarding the culture of sports, such as normalization of substances in sports and lack of effective measures from the role models.
Apparently, most of the people in the field of sports encouraged the concept of ‘work hard and party harder.’ Most of the sports persons are exposed to substances as early as 14 or 15 years of age. Moreover, a sizeable number of athletes were involved in binge drinking. With the easy accessibility to substances to underage children playing sports, there is an increased risk of developing an addiction.
It is never too late to seek treatment
Athletes need to be monitored closely following any kind of surgery to avoid addiction to prescribed opioids. Parents need to keep a close watch on younger athletes’ medications. However, the biggest step is to reach out for help. The treatment for addiction at a recovery facility can help athletes to redefine and rediscover themselves.
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