Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Mental Health Lessons From Olympians

What Olympians can teach us about loneliness.

Key points

  • We can benefit from understanding the resilience of elite athletes.
  • Avoidance perpetuates loneliness.
  • Building a practice of distress tolerance helps athletes succeed.
Alex Wolf/Pexels
Source: Alex Wolf/Pexels

Our quadrennial obsession with the summer Olympics is upon us. Even with viewership down for the Covid-delayed Tokyo games, about 10 million tuned in each night to watch these spectacular athletes. In their entirety, the French games are likely to bring in billions of viewers. We love celebrating these athletes. Undoubtedly, audiences tune in to watch who wins a race or stick a landing, but what about watching to remind ourselves that we can do hard things emotionally? As a former athlete and current psychologist treating the growing number of folks impacted by the “loneliness epidemic,” we have a lot to learn about mental health from the Olympians we will admire for their physical aptitude.

Loneliness is deeply connected to avoidance, specifically avoiding discomfort. In my work with clients, I often see the links between an inability to tolerate discomfort and increased loneliness. Limiting our exposure to painful experiences is built into modern-day living. Emotional discomfort is also avoided at all stakes. We lack a basic skill set to handle life’s inevitable challenges. Our youth seem to hide from difficult experiences actively—teens don’t drive, and Gen Z doesn’t have sex. This type of cowering at life’s difficulties is unheard of in elite athleticism. Facing adversity head-on is the norm for our beloved Olympic athletes.

The 1996 Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta, Georgia, offering a slogan for the American swim team, “no pain, no peaches.” Not only did Americans dominate in the pool—but they also led in the overall medal count. Those athletes faced tremendous pain, not only in their athletic pursuits but the games were rooted in emotional pain, as the Centennial Park Bombing occurred during the games. They persevered despite the turmoil, and these athletes continue to do so outside their sport. Gold medalist from the ‘96 games, Amy Van Dyken, continues to lean into life’s difficulties. She had a life-altering all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident in 2014, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. After the incident, Van Dyken reported, “I am a better person than before the injury.” Van Dyken’s ability to face hardship is inspiring and aspirational.

Even those who engage in group fitness are exposed to the idea that building an ability to lean into some pain is a good thing. “Change happens in the discomfort” and “get out of your comfort zone” are the most recent clichés I have heard in various exercise classes. When moving our bodies, we understand the benefit of tolerating any momentary hurt that comes to grow. It is time we practice leaning into adversity for our mental health.

In the therapy world, the skill we witness Olympic athletes master is called distress tolerance. We must engage with pain and learn to move through it because it is an unavoidable part of life. So where are the gyms for that kind of growth? I can assure you that they are not in the spaces many turn to nowadays, such as online. In fact, while the internet can be an initial source of connection—meeting on an app or conversing on a subreddit, these experiences lack depth and can worsen one’s loneliness.

Globally, we spend an average of six-plus hours online. This number increases when you single out Americans, who average seven hours online. When looking at social media use, teens spend almost five hours daily on social media. The internet landscape leaves such little room for honing distress tolerance skills, which is especially concerning when we think of how this affects teen mental health. Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, indirectly speaks to the lack of distress tolerance in youth by highlighting how much time is spent online and how overly protective parents remove pain so freely. Our culture’s tendency to hide from pain is rampant and profound.

When we feel uncomfortable online, we often shut down or write people off. These write-offs hurt us collectively and only deepen our loneliness. We are well aware of the damaging effects of tribalism and cancel culture, and flexing the muscle of trying to speak our minds or understand where someone is coming from is a way to face the challenges we often experience in an online platform.

Instead of doing the hard thing by engaging in difficult dialogues, we dismiss people and publicly defame them for having differing views. Polarization is steeped in the discord that exists online. There is no longer the desire to understand where someone is coming from truly or to try to find the gray; rather, the internet has become a manifestation of black and white thinking. This type of thinking is considered to be a cognitive distortion linked to depression. Remaining committed to this all-or-nothing approach to difficult dialogue keeps us lonely and disengaged.

As Olympians practice their sport, we also must practice building a tolerance to emotional pain rather than finding ways to avoid or escape. We must not react or change anything; we sit with the pain, observe, and get better at feeling without fixing it. Building this skill is like working out a muscle group. It takes time and effort, and we must show up in an arena that requires bravery—just like our adored Olympians have done for centuries.


More from Vanessa Scaringi Ph.D., CEDS-C
More from Psychology Today
More from Vanessa Scaringi Ph.D., CEDS-C
More from Psychology Today