Psychological Disorders

A psychological disorder is a mental health condition that disrupts the normal feelings, mood, or ability of one person to interact with others. A psychological disorder may be caused by genetic or inherited characteristics, or it may result from environmental factors. Psychological disorders are distinct from physical illnesses or injury, although a physical condition may be a contributing factor to the progress of a psychological condition.

A healthy relationship between mind and body is fundamental to optimal athletic performance. Any disturbance in the equilibrium between physical and mental performance will usually create a cause and effect relationship: impaired mental health will lead inexorably to an equivalent physical result. A body of science, sport psychology, has grown dramatically in recent years as the demand to better understand the mind/body relationship in all sports has increased.

There are common psychological disorders that influence athletic performance. These conditions are not limited to sports, but are frequently the source of problems for athletes. Some of the disorders are interrelated in that they may occur concurrently in the athlete. Others exist alone, but are found to arise when more generalized factors such as the mental stress of competition also exist. The athletic environment is a fertile breeding ground for many disorders, as traditionally, an athlete who failed to maintain the level of training or competitive skills due to psychological reasons was perceived as weak and unsuited to high-level sports. For this reason, athletes would often keep secret any psychological problems they found themselves experiencing.

There are common psychological disorders affecting athletes. Overtraining syndrome is a condition that affects athletes who appear to overreach with their training, attempting either to gain too much, too fast, or who otherwise fail to maintain a healthy balance between workout intensity, workout volume, and rest. In its initial phases, this condition manifests itself as one of simple physical or mental fatigue, circumstances that are often dismissed as correctable through the athlete either reducing training or competition loads. Overtraining syndrome is separated from simple physical fatigue by the mindset of the athlete toward the condition: the athlete tends to lose all interest in even basic fitness. The athlete will invariably feel lethargic about both athletic activities and other social aspects of life. This syndrome is also known as "unexplained under-performance syndrome," where the athlete quite suddenly loses interest in attaining performance goals.

Depression is another very common and debilitating condition in athletes. Depression as a clinically diagnosed illness does not simply describe a person who is sad or otherwise in poor spirits for a brief period of time. Depression is defined as a disorder where the person experiences the symptoms of depressions for two weeks or longer. Mental stress, a loss of self-esteem, or similar events can trigger a depressive episode. The disruption in the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, or conduit of signals in the brain, is a physiological contributor to this illness. Depression will significantly reduce the mental outlook of the subject; athletes suffering from depression often are uninterested in training or competition, they sustain a loss of appetite, and they often present as anxious. Anxiety is a sense of fear, upset, and dread, and is a condition that is often closely related to depression.

Eating disorders are the most common of psychological disturbances in athletes and include anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Both anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent among female athletes, particularly those participating in sports where one's weight and personal appearance are important components of competitive success. Figure skating and gymnastics are the prime examples of sports where eating disorders can arise. Anorexia is a condition where the athletes believe themselves to be too large or otherwise overweight, while to an objective observer, such persons are usually at least of normal build and sometimes quite slim. Bulimia is motivated by the same psychological belief, but it is characterized by the binge/purge cycle, where the bulimic athletes will eat, often to excess, and then deliberately vomit or use laxatives to empty their body.

Substance-induced psychological disturbance is the most common disorder precipitated by the use of a training substance, as in the infamous "roid rage," the well-documented side effect from the consumption of anabolic steroids. Steroids have the potential to become psychologically addictive; once the athlete has developed a larger and more muscular body, the athlete will regard the steroid consumption as a psychological crutch. Steroids can contribute to violent mood swings and uncontrollable bursts of anger.

The desire to relieve physical pain can sometimes create a dependency, or addiction, in the athlete for painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Alcohol, marijuana, and various stimulants are common substances that are abused by athletes, consumed as stress-relieving substances.

SEE ALSO Eating disorders in athletes; Mental stress; Sport psychology; Sports medical conditions.