After the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games earlier this year, athletes marched across the Olympic stadium proudly representing their country just like the opening ceremonies. Except this time, some athletes came decorated with medals of gold, silver and bronze hanging from their necks.
These medals represented the culmination of years and years of planning, preparation, training, and dream-chasing. The question is, now that the games are over, what is next? For some athletes, whether they have won a medal or not, such thoughts can lead to depression.
Olympic Athletes and Depression
Olympic swimmers Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps have both opened up about battling depression after competing in the Olympics.
Franklin struggled after leaving the games in 2016 with disappointing results. She failed to reach the finals in the 200-meter backstroke, an event she won the gold medal in during the previous Olympics. Franklin also had to undergo double-shoulder surgery after the summer games.
These challenges led to anxiety and depression. Through the experience, Franklin acknowledged that while life has its “highest highs,” it also has its “lowest lows.”
“Every year of your life isn’t going to be the next best year,” she told NBC Atlanta. “Some aspects are, but there are also going to be some incredible challenges.”
Likewise, Phelps recalled to CNN that his experience at the 2004 summer games left him “hungry for more” medals, leading him to push himself to his limit. This soon became the trend for every Olympics he competed in. Phelps would set enormous goals for himself and achieve many of them. Then, as soon as the games ended, he would begin to feel depressed, using drugs and alcohol to cope.
“Really, after every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression,” Phelps stated. “It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from.”
Phelps and Franklin’s battle with post-Olympic depression is not rare. Scott Goldman, sports psychologist and director of the Performance Psychology Center at the University Michigan, explained to The Atlantic that athletes can experience an emotional drop after the Olympics regardless if they leave with or without medals:
“Think about the rollercoaster ride prior to the Olympics, and just how fast and hectic that mad dash is. This ninety-mile-per-hour or hundred-mile-per-hour ride comes to a screeching halt the second the Olympics are over. … [The athletes] are just exhausted; it was such an onslaught to their system. And when it’s all said and done, they’re just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically.”
Major Life Events Can Trigger Sadness
According to Goldman, it’s not just Olympic athletes who can experience these feelings after completing major life events.
Graduation, weddings, big projects, and other milestones are things we look forward to and work towards for so long, that a feeling of emptiness can be left when they are over.
In Psychology Today, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. calls this “Post-Adrenaline Blues,” which could be triggered biologically due to the withdrawal of stress hormones, or psychologically due to feeling unsure of what to do next. Regardless of the cause, “the jubilation at being done is often quickly followed by a sense of letdown.”
Solutions to Ease the Transition
Just as Olympic athletes stretch and “cool-down” after physical activity, it is important to take time to care for ourselves to renew our energy.
Kennedy-Moore states that there are ways to ease feelings of sadness, such as:
- Setting new goals – especially one that isn’t related to what you just achieved
- Eating well – a balanced diet can help improve your mental state of mind
- Exercising – even if it is a walk around the block
- Connecting with loved ones – especially if you feel like you’ve been neglecting them
If you find that your feelings could be signaling something more serious such as depression, it is okay to ask for help. Speaking to a healthcare provider is a good first step.
With care, you can move forward with new life experiences while enjoying the memories of past events.
Missy Franklin explained that although going through her post-Olympic experience was hard, it gave her a new outlook on life: “The best is yet to come, and that could mean a million different things to me right now.”