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Anxiety

Simone Biles: World Class Gymnast and Mental Health Advocate

Biles' actions have focused welcome attention on athletes' mental health.

Key points

  • The causes of anxiety in emerging adults are multifactorial, but there is an unhealthy focus on "perfection" and "success."
  • Biles' actions are helping to decrease the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues.
  • Ways to address anxiety include naming what makes one anxious, noticing self-talk, avoiding substances and getting professional help.

This post was written by Dr. Patricia Daza.

Salty View/Shutterstock
Source: Salty View/Shutterstock

When gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team gymnastics final at the Olympics, she brought athletes' mental health to the forefront of this intense competition. Biles spoke openly about her drive for success and dominance and, at the same time, showed vulnerability when acknowledging the pressures and expectations she has experienced. She is not alone in facing these challenges, but she is definitely one of the most visible athletes at the Tokyo Olympics to admit to them.

Biles has been an advocate of mental health, previously discussing her own struggle with anxiety and panic attacks prior to the Olympic games. As a psychologist who works with emerging adults at The Menninger Clinic, I assure you that such pressures are not exclusive to elite athletes. The pressures that current emerging adults face are quite different than in the past. Being “the best” is the norm in our society today, whether it’s taking advanced placement (AP) classes in high school, getting into an Ivy League school, presenting a carefully edited version of your best self on Instagram — the list of pressures often seems endless.

Anxiety Among Young Adults

Anxiety and depression are a common result of these pressures in our current society. In fact, anxiety has increased considerably during Covid, especially among younger adults. The lack of socialization and added difficulty forming romantic relationships have further complicated things for emerging adults who are still formalizing their identities. Medications are one way to address anxiety, but there are other evidence-based approaches to address symptoms when they impact quality of life.

How can we get to a point where “perfection” or “success” don’t define us? Part of the solution is to recognize that you are not alone. Anxiety and depression are not uncommon during Covid, even for people who have never had a history of mental health issues. For some, the anxiety and depression can be debilitating to the point where it is impacting school, work, and relationships. This can intensify leading some to develop suicidal beliefs or plans.

What Simone Biles has done is inspiring. She spoke openly about her struggles, probably knowing she would disappoint some individuals with her decision to withdraw. However, she was able to recognize her needs and the long-term impact of self-care. She has been open about her anxiety and her work with mental health clinicians. This kind of vulnerability on a public level helps others recognize their own struggles and decreases the stigma around seeking help.

Ways to Address Anxiety

  • Name the fear. What specifically makes you anxious?
  • Begin to self-monitor. Do you get anxious during certain days or times? Are you noticing a pattern? Look for patterns.
  • Begin finding ways to decrease your overall physiological arousal. Deep breathing, yoga, and meditation are examples. Do this in short increments and build over time.
  • Self-talk is important. The mind can be both incredibly supportive or drive us deeper into anxiety. Do you judge yourself harshly or are you being your own hype person?
  • Avoid substances. Substances can be deceiving because they initially help decrease the anxiety, but frequently they can cause more problems in the long term.
  • Talk to a therapist. They can help develop a plan that works best for you including teaching you skills, challenging your thoughts, and helping you discover core beliefs that might be driving this anxiety.
  • Most importantly, recognize that anxiety is normal and that everyone feels it. The task is to get to a place that feels manageable for you and it does not interfere with your ability to live the life you want.

Going Forward

As Biles said, “We’re people at the end of the day.” This is an unassumingly powerful statement. We are all people with strengths, weaknesses, and struggles. The more we normalize being human, the more compassionate we can be towards each other... and the more compassionate we can be towards each other means the more compassionate we can be towards ourselves. For those who struggle with anxiety and depression taking the steps to take care of yourself or give yourself what you need can feel selfish or impossible. What Biles did was show others the importance of that step, and hopefully empowered others to take that step despite their own adversity.

About the Author

Patricia Daza, PhD, ABPP, is a senior psychologist and the director of Psychology Services at Menninger. She previously served as program director for Compass, Menninger's emerging adults program.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. ​​​​​​​

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