So how do we, Olympians and non-Olympians, get stuck in that no-good mixed-up place?
Like many others reading this, I have been captivated by the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The superhuman physical, mental, and emotional effort required by every athlete to make it to the games is impressive on its own. Competing on the world stage as the best from their respective countries, each athlete undoubtedly feels the weight and honor that carries with it. On top of all this, imagine the pressure they felt contending with a pandemic, forcing them to continue their Olympic training for an extra year – with the ongoing threat of cancellation looming.
This has personally deepened my respect for these athletes, but, as a Licensed Professional Counselor, it also puts a global spotlight on the effects of stress. The world was stunned when Simone Biles withdrew from competition for mental health reasons to address what she called “the twisties.” Many rushed to say she cracked under pressure, she failed, she quit, on and on. Now, I’m a six-foot-four white guy, so I’m pretty much as opposite physically to Simone Biles as someone can get. But I don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to understand that the mixed-up feeling Simone described is less about being an Olympic superhuman and more about being an everyday human. All of us have been there at one time or another – lost in our own personal “twisties.” Feeling mixed up, disconnected from ourselves, and unsure of how to proceed.
So how do we, Olympians and non-Olympians, get stuck in that no-good mixed-up place? Stress. Stress may come from something major, like the loss of a job or a sick relative. It could be ongoing like financial problems, lack of employment, or the sociopolitical climate: or stressful situations many of us have endured while living through the COVID pandemic. However, most often, it’s the cumulative build-up of the many minor stressors we contend with during our daily lives that get us into that place. Each minor problem we face isn’t too difficult to manage on its own, but those little problems, when piled one on top of the other, can feel unmanageable- and cause the ‘twisties.’
Whenever I talk about stress with the good people I treat at Sinclair Health Clinic (which you may have guessed is a lot), I emphasize that stress is insidious. If we don’t purposefully offload some of it from time to time, it will find a way out on its own – in sneaky and ruthless ways. These effects can be in the form of muscle tension, headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, insomnia, irritability, and problems with memory and concentration, among others. Unmanaged stress can even result in unintentional but severe harm to ourselves or others. And, when it lasts long enough or is intense enough (e.g, Trauma), we might develop clinical symptoms for diagnoses like depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
This is precisely what Simone Biles was trying to avoid when she decided to step back from the competition for which she has trained her entire life. She consulted with her coaches to assess her mental readiness and then took it day by day. Simone knew she could, and likely would, be disappointing herself, her teammates and coaches, gymnast enthusiasts, her country, and the entire world. After all, Simone was unofficially regarded as the face of the United States Olympic Team. I commend her ability to push through her fear and doubt, put aside the superhuman pressures of international competition, and focus on her perfectly normal human mental health. Because that’s what Simone did while the entire world watched.
Simone did the right thing to protect her physical health by focusing on her psychological and emotional wellbeing. If you haven’t already, do a quick online search about gymnastics injuries and the emotional fallout. As a disclaimer: reader beware, it gets gruesome. Her empowering decision to make her mental health the top priority makes her a role model not just as an Olympian but also as a fellow human. In the end, Simone’s brief break to receive support from friends and professionals resulted in her feeling healthy enough to return to competition and win a Bronze medal on the balance beam.
If Simone Biles can take a step back, knowing she would be giving up Olympic opportunities and facing worldwide criticism, you and I can also step back. We can choose to slow down, take a vacation if it’s in the cards, admit we’re not alright, and ask friends and family for help. But if taking those steps doesn’t help you feel better, it is healthy and normal to seek additional help from a professional. I practice at Sinclair Health Clinic, but there are many other professional counselors like me in the area. Think of what we do like getting a car tune-up for your mind. It just makes sense that your work and home life will be better when you feel like your authentic, healthy self.
Like so many others, I was incredibly proud to watch the recent award ceremony where Simone Biles received her bronze medal for the balance beam. For me, the honor awarded her performance reinforced the more significant lesson Simone’s Olympic journey provided to the world: our mental health is as important as our physical health, and it’s normal to get the help we need to feel better. Long after the end of these unconventional Olympic games, I’ll remember Simone flying through the air, getting through the ‘twisties,’ and beaming with pride after her landing – and demonstrating to the world that we can all do the same.
About the Author, Craig Lien, LPC
Craig joined Sinclair Health Clinic in February of 2020. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Mercer University, along with Master of Arts and Education Specialist degrees in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from James Madison University.