Today, awareness of mental illness and sympathetic attitudes towards those who suffer from it are rapidly increasing, but we’re still a very early stage in our understanding of how to treat it. Individuals vary so much that when treating common conditions like depression it can be difficult to find the right therapy. The discovery that joining a sports team can help to reduce associated problems is therefore an important piece of news. Complementary approaches like this can do a lot to help those with mental health conditions – and with sports also linked to improvements in some of the problems that often precede mental illness, there’s good reason for everybody to be as active as they can be.
Active participation in sports is directly connected with a reduction in stress levels. That’s because it speeds up the metabolism and helps the body to flush out cortisol, the primary stress hormone. If you’re feeling stressed, engaging in physical activity that gets you moving and increases your heart rate is a great way to work it off. What’s more, regular physical activity seems to have a preventative effect, reducing the degree to which stress builds up in the first place. If you work in a stressful job, playing squash at lunchtime or walking or cycling home can help. Team sports are particularly effective because they have the added bonus of helping you to build strong friendships, which also contribute to stress reduction.
Did you know that the average American sleeps just 6.8 hours a night? That’s less than the recommended amount, and poor quality sleep can make the problem worse. When you don’t get enough sleep your brain chemistry can more easily become unbalanced, increasing the risk of developing a mental illness and making an existing illness worse. The good news is that regular sporting activity reduces the risk of insomnia and improves sleep quality. It does this by helping your body to develop a more consistent metabolic rhythm and is particularly effective if you also make an effort to eat meals at the same times every day as well as sticking to a regular bedtime. This improves the odds of you enjoying good mental health over the long term.
Where fully developed mental illness is concerned, sporting activity has shown most promise in the treatment of depression. One study found that it reduced instances of depression by 19% over five years, which might not sound like much but compares favorably with pharmaceutical options and, of course, doesn’t mean that you can’t also use those. It also relieves some of the symptoms of depression, meaning that even if you don’t feel much more positive, you’ll have more energy and you’ll find it easier to look after your physical health and cope with day to day life. Team sports can also help to relieve some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders, improving your ability to focus and increasing your confidence.
In order to benefit people with existing mental health problems, sporting organizations need to be accessible to them. Bryant and Stratton sports teams have a good reputation for being accepting and establishing a friendly, supportive atmosphere, in line with the general approach to inclusivity taken by Bryant and Stratton College. It’s important that organizations aiming to help mentally ill people also take a strong proactive approach to supporting other minority groups, because having to deal with things like racism or homophobia, even at a low level, can easily make mental illness worse.
Practical measures, like having a quiet space nearby which people can retreat to if they feel they’re not coping, can do a lot to help mentally ill people participate in sport. It’s also important to make sure that everyone receives praise for their achievements, even if they’re only beginners and not very good, and to avoid practices like having captains select teams, which can be stressful for those who repeatedly find themselves picked last.
Supporting players like this doesn’t mean that a team can’t provide a competitive environment, and the discipline involved in training can transfer really well into the mental discipline needed to manage intrusive thoughts and similar symptoms of mental illness. Working as part of a team reassures people about their ability to form positive relationships with others and be useful to the group. It’s not a magic cure-all but it’s another tool in the box and, even for those who are really struggling, it can provide moments of joy that no medical treatment has to offer.