The Physical Impact of Mental Stress

Mental health issues are frequently being addressed in the media and it has become evident that any mental health issue needs to be addressed with the same importance as any medical condition. I have always thought that I can the handle life’s mental stresses. I think that I have faced a few of them in my time and I have never really felt these stresses have affected me physically. Throughout my athletic career I have always had the ability to push myself mentally harder and further, and I believe that this has been a competitive edge which I have had. The tougher the event, the better I have performed. This being the case I have always focussed on getting physically 100% to compete at my best and just assumed that mentally I would be able to cope with whatever the event throws at me.

For the last 6 weeks I have been really struggling physically to get through training and even daily life. I have felt a real whole body fatigue. I have worked through all of the obvious triggers for this fatigue including; a lack of sleep, missing recovery sessions, poor nutrition and even dehydration. After ticking these off, a review with my doctor and a suite of blood tests, further results also revealed very little anomalies. Further assessment of my bike fit and running technique still left me questioning what had changed with me physically and why I was feeling so average for this prolonged period.

It was during breakfast with my girlfriend that I realised I may be suffering from the effects of cumulative mental stress which had built up over a prolonged period of time, likely since my broken collar bone 4 months ago. She asked me how I was feeling and I just looked at her sullenly and responded “average”. She then asked why and I first thought ‘stupid question’, but then reeled off everything that was on my mind; feeling fatigued, can’t train properly, goals slipping away, shoulder not 100% from surgery, lower body constantly sore, diabetes up and down, CGM not working properly, worried about what I’m eating, worried about my power to weight, trying to organise a new work car, trying to win contracts at work, dealing with local council re. neighbouring development, talking about future property investments, reassessing financial investments, reviewing home mortgage, bills-bills-bills, talking about starting a family, trying to support partners business and work, and trying to be a good boyfriend. Phew, “remember to breathe” she said.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff to process and thinking about it more there were other indicators that showed my mental state may have been affecting me more than I realised. Some of these included having difficulty sleeping, losing concentration and focus on important tasks, lack of motivation for things that I normally love doing and generally being in a poor mood. I had dismissed these symptoms whenever they had occurred for any number of different reasons but when you put it all together there was a good possibility that my mental state was contributing to my poor physical condition. I was trying to sort out several things which will have significant influence on the rest of my life whilst also trying to train 15hrs per week, manage my diabetes and living my daily life may have been too much. I have been pushing my body to get back to 100% since breaking my collar bone in October and this was obviously at great physical stress. As the personal issues built up and I tried to assess and resolve these my mind was constantly working, even when I was trying to sleep. Thinking that I could just handle this I continued to train and continued to work through the various items at the expense of my physical and mental wellbeing all the time by myself without seeking any support. 6 weeks ago it all became too much and my body said ‘NO!’. I fell into a heap and was unable to push through any more.

Although it took me 6 weeks to figure this out, now completely stopping and taking a step back, I have immediately started feeling better. I have spoken openly with my girlfriend and just letting someone else in has made an amazing difference. I know now that I was physically wrecked and since stopping I actually haven’t wanted to do any training, I know that doing nothing is the best for my body and I am enjoying it. Mental, talking through the other issues has shown that these may not be as significant as they are in my head.

So what am I doing now? Stresses are part of life and they can all be managed with the support which I have. Being open and honest with myself and those closest to me has been a hugely rewarding first step. Things are certainly not as overwhelming as they may have seemed. In terms of my physical condition I am taking a couple of weeks off. No training at all, no thinking about training, just resting and enjoying time recuperating. Then I’m going to follow a really steady structured program to get my body right for racing which will include more functional strength work and then building for my races. I am also not going to put pressure on myself to be at a certain level too quickly, I have raced many times before being under done and I have performed really well in these instances.

Being in the middle of the season and at a very important time for my 2016 goals is not ideal but continuing the way that I was would have ended up in disaster both physically and mentally. I am amazed how great the physical impact has been from the mental stress. I have always focussed on the physical side of training but from this experience I understand that listening to your whole mind, body and immediate environment is vitally important to achieve your best.

**I am not a health professional and the comments made in this post are from my own personal experience only. Help can be found at Beyond Blue. See disclaimer.

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