Sports Addiction & Anxiety: What's The Connection?

Sports addiction and anxiety

In cases of excessive exercising, a person treats their own body as an object rather than as a subject (i.e., they experience themselves as "you" instead of "I"). This objectification of the self allows one to feel a sense of control regarding some aspect of oneself, or one's relationships with others, that otherwise seems out of control. This control can be exerted and maintained by manipulating the body in conditioning exercise or other sport participation.

What causes excessive exercise?

Over-participation in sports can be caused by a variety of factors, but it generally consolidates around two functions:

1. Lack of capacity for emotional regulation. This happens when certain emotional capacities haven't been developed or break down under excessive stress and anxiety. Emotional regulation is the capacity to perceive early indications of emotions, label emotions, detect changes in the quality and quantity of emotions, generate meaning from emotions, verbally express emotions, modulate the impact emotion has on behavior, and use emotions effectively to influence behavior in a productive way.

2. Escape from difficult experiences. People use physical activity to escape from difficult internal or external experiences, such as anxiety, anger, dependency, urges, traumatic memories, and the like, so they don't have to regulate them. This process is called experiential avoidance, or the attempt to avoid, escape from, or change internal experiences such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, physical sensations, and more. This is a normal, but generally ineffective, process that most people engage in in some capacity. It's "normal" because it's a mode of thinking that emphasizes problem-solving in the external world. For example, if you get a flat tire, you fix it. This "doing mode" has facilitated human evolution due to its vigilant, protective, and creative functions. Thus, it makes sense that we would apply the same principles to internal experiences that are "problematic," such as anxiety, depression, and anger.

Empirical and clinical data suggest that when these problem-solving strategies are applied to the internal world of the mind, they are usually ineffective. They may work in the short term, but they usually drain a person's life of the potential for meaning and vitality. Developing experiential acceptance, however, allows clients to experience troubling emotions without needing to avoid or change them. This is an important aspect of treatment. This process frees up a person's psychological resources to approach emotions curiously and non-judgmentally, such that the meaning of the emotions can be explored without needing to act on them. Subsequently, the client is able to focus on what he or she values most instead of, for example, "avoiding anxiety." Then, a person can respond to internal experiences less impulsively and more reflectively. This allows for more effective behaviors and living a life with meaning, purpose, and vitality.

More relationships advice from YourTango:

How bad is excessive exercise for you, and how much is too much?

"How much is too much" depends on the person. But basically, my criteria is that participation in sports becomes "too much" when:

1. It inhibits a person from living a life in accord with what he or she truly values. Helping a client determine the values and principles by which they should guide their life is a complicated process. The treatment involves having the client identify a core set of values. And if sports are preventing the person from acting on his or her core values, then the person is overdoing it.

2. If a client is "okay" with his or her level of sports participation, but family and friends are negatively affected by it, then the therapy has to connect the client's values regarding relationships to his or her behavioral decisions regarding sports participation.

3. If the sports participation causes obvious impairment or distress—such as if the client can't maintain employment—then it's too much.

What is a smart substitute for excessive sports participation?

A smart substitute is to have the client engage in a behavior that is congruent with his or her values. The trick here is that values-congruent behavior often causes anxiety; that's why we try to avoid it to begin with. However, part of my approach to therapy emphasizes a change in the client's relationship to anxiety such that it's looked at from a distance, in a non-judgmental and accepting way. When the client experiences anxiety, the mind is just doing its job to protect him or her from external threat—like our ancestors had to do out in the wild. If we can help our clients see their anxiety from this perspective, they start relating to it differently, and stops controling their behavior. In other words, they don't have to create a life around avoiding anxiety; they can create a life around developing a meaningful life. Our treatment also allows the patient to explore the meaning of his or her anxiety in a less-threatening way.

How can one recover from over-participation in sports?

1. Develop new ways to tolerate the urge to participate in sports without acting on them. One way to do this is through mindfulness meditation, which is intentional nonjudgmental awareness (see "urge surfing" below). A general attitude of mindfulness can be developed and used to increase the client's effectiveness in decreasing the control that urges to participate in sports have on his or her life.

2. When the urges are not being acted on, focus behavior on specific, concrete actions that bring more value to a person's life.

Part of my approach to working with addicted clients is to identify the psychological functions that the addiction is bolstering and help the client develop his or her own psychological resources, so that he or she can provide the functions independently of the addiction. I emphasize that internal experiences, such as feelings, are essentially "just words." When it really comes down to it, "depressed" and "anxious" are words that cannot do harm. This important aspect of treatment of sport addiction is called defusion. For example, treatment would focus on a client's defusing from the thoughts that "I must work out an extra hour every day." Without needing to act on the thought, the person can choose his or her behavior less reactively and more effectively. Thus, he or she can choose to act in accord with his values (like spending time with his or her family) rather than reactively (like working out for another hour).

Acceptance and defusion are aspects of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is defined as present-moment, non-judgmental awareness. One mindfulness meditation I use with clients suffering from addiction is called "urge surfing." It involves having the client learn how to "surf" urges using the "breath as a surfboard" without letting the wave of "addictive behavior" wipe him or her out. Like the waves of the ocean, all urges build, peak, subside, and go away.