By: Jenna Rosen, Psy.D.
We have all experienced stress and fear, and know how toxic they can be to the body and the mind. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, in 2016, 24 percent of adults in the United States reported experiencing ""extreme"" stress levels, up from 18 percent in 2014.
Stressful situations trigger the fight-or-flight response, which produces real physiological changes: the breath quickens, muscles tense, and the heart pounds. This can happen even if there's no immediate threat. When this alarm system is activated, our ability to solve problems using logic and reason shuts down and we're vulnerable to reactivity and impulsivity.
Several former professional football players have used the analogy of a ""bull seeing red"" to describe how they are conditioned to react on the field: They charge in single-mindedly, harnessing the power of the fight-or-flight response.
Your post-football career comes with new sets of stressors, fears, and challenges -- but charging in like a bull usually isn't an appropriate response. Here are a few ideas to help you overcome fear and stress as you write the playbook for the next chapter of life.
Control the Controllables
It's important to remember that we can't control how we feel or what thoughts cross our mind, but we can control how we respond and react to those thoughts.
The body and mind often overreact to stressors like financial concerns, arguments with family, and even traffic jams. In cases like these, the fight-or-flight response is no longer functioning to secure our survival.
Pause and ask yourself what's happening. If you're enraged by traffic, will your anger make another person drive better or make the traffic go faster? If a loved one says something that stings, remember that there is a difference between acknowledging that you feel hurt, and acting out on it. If plans don't work out you may feel disappointed, but you can choose not to let this disappointment hold you back from living fully.
Move on to the Next Play
It's important to remember that life is not just about winning and losing. Failing hurts, and feelings of loss and emptiness can even make it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
But no matter what hardships you’re facing, don't buy into the belief that you are ""flawed,"" ""a failure,"" ""unlovable."" Embrace the imperfection. We all make mistakes and have setbacks. But just like on the football field, when the play is over, move on to the next one. Make the choice to get back up after you have fallen down, and prepare to tackle new opportunities, new challenges, and new perspectives.
This can be particularly hard when we have been betrayed and our trust has been violated. It's tempting to build a case against those who have caused us pain and suffering. Each time we replay the film of how we have been wronged, we feel it again in our body and our mind with greater intensity.
You can choose to hide behind the past hurts or you can embrace connection, an essential human need. It takes courage to be honest with ourselves and others about how we feel. But opening ourselves can be a gift to others because it invites them to do the same. Don't deprive others of your goodness. But at the same time, remember to be selective about the feedback you let into your life.
Training Camp for the Brain
There are tools and techniques you can use to help yourself cope with stress and fear, even in the toughest of situations.
Fear literally takes our breath away, making it shallow, rapid, and constricted. One way to break out of this state of increased arousal and tension is through deep breathing. It works for the Navy SEALs, who use it in their mental toughness training. Some of the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing include decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension, enhanced learning and skill development, and an increased capacity for focused attention.
Remember, we can't stop ourselves from having thoughts, but we can practice choosing which thoughts and feelings we engage with and act on, and which we choose to let go. We can begin to quiet our minds, face our fears, reduce stress, and start living in the present.
As we enter May -- National Mental Health Awareness Month -- it's important to remember that it takes strength and courage to know when to seek support from a mental health professional. All former players and family members can take advantage of Cigna's free counseling benefit. Contact The Trust today to determine which services and benefits you are eligible for and to schedule your comprehensive head-to-toe Brain and Body Assessment.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis we encourage you to seek help. In the process of helping yourself, you may be given the courage to others to reach out for help as well. If you or someone you know is in crisis please call the NFL Life Line at 1-800-506-0078 or call 9-1-1 or head to your nearest local emergency room.