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Mind, Body and Sport: The haunting legacy of abuse

An excerpt from the Sport Science Institute’s guide to understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness

By Cindy Miller Aron

As previous chapters have pointed out, student-athletes may be an at-risk population for developing psychiatric symptoms. But individuals with abuse histories can be at even higher risk, given the likelihood of greater emotional vulnerability.  

The highly functional exterior of athletes often belies psychological fragility. Individuals with histories of abuse can lack the emotional resilience to cope with the ordinary acclimation to college life, let alone the extraordinary demands made upon student-athletes.

The legacy of abuse operates on a preconscious level. There is an individual’s obvious response to an athletics experience, and then there is what lies underneath. It is the preconscious, underlying areas of loss/sadness that compounds the intensity of what occurred.

The individual experiences his or her frustrations or disappointments as greater than the reality of what transpired. The student-athlete loses his or her ability to distinguish how he or she feels from what actually happened. Battling the persistence of these feelings results in an inefficient use of psychological energy. As a result, depletion can occur rapidly. Soon the student-athlete is emotionally running on empty. This is when psychiatric symptoms present.

Individuals with a history of sexual/physical/emotional abuse can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a psychological reaction to experiencing a highly stressful event or series of events, outside the normal range of human experience. The disorder is characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares, among others. The demands of college athletics create an area ripe with “triggers” for the affected student-athletes.

Individuals with abuse histories have an extraordinary sensitivity to boundary violations or perceived boundary violations. A seemingly benign exchange can provoke a flood of effect with debilitating results. These responses can be confusing to the individual as well as teammates and other athletics department personnel. The student-athlete can begin to be labeled as “hot-headed,” “overly emotional,” “an over-reactor,” “too sensitive” and so on. These kinds of dismissive responses trivialize what is a deeper-seated struggle for an individual that bears attention.

Less than benign exchanges, in the form of harsh coaching behavior, create a different set of challenges for those with abuse histories. The familiarity of mistreatment may allow a greater degree of tolerance than for individuals with no abuse history. However, this is not without emotional cost.  

The individual can quickly experience a shrinking sense of self and self-worth, which over time compromises the individual’s ability to manage these exchanges. The student-athlete likely begins to experience increased frustration, distortion in thinking, unrealistic performance expectations and self-deprecating statements.

Coaching feedback can intensify arousal, causing further emotional distress in the individual. The person begins to feel worthless, and helpless about having any impact on the circumstance, which then can lapse into hopelessness. Images of failure loom large, compounded by feelings of embarrassment, self-loathing and the potent affect of shame.

It is common for individuals with abuse histories to experience inappropriate guilt, meaning the assumption of greater responsibility for what transpired than is reasonable. This is the result of the masterful way in which abusers can project responsibility for their actions onto the victim. The abused individual experiences a mistake or disappointment as a crime of sorts for which they need to be punished.

Errors/mistakes are inherent in performance-based endeavors. An athlete can experience a relentless feeling of responsibility for such a metaphoric crime, triggered by a game error or dismal performance. This burden of failure, which “demands punishment,” deploys more assaults on the individual’s self-esteem and sense of his or her own character, further eroding the individual’s effective stability.

Somatic complaints, without medical explanation, are a psychiatric symptom that is split off from the origin in internal distress. These are often manifestations of depression. These can present as pregame nausea, chronic aches/pains, headache and so on.  

Depression/anxiety can come in many disguises, such as psychomotor agitation, balking, hitting a hurdle, cramping and tight muscles. Additional disguises involve psychomotor retardation, inability to pass a fitness test, missing balls/shots and fumbling, to name a few. Somatic complaints bear further exploration. The preconscious conflicts of those with abuse histories can be a primary driver of such concerns.

Student-athletes are especially vulnerable to losses in physical functioning through injury, which removes them from the athletics activity. Considerable research – described in some detail in Chapter 4 of this publication – has been done on this issue outlining predictable post-injury adjustment/depression. For student-athletes, an injury can become a significant life stressor. It not only prevents participation in their sport and with their team, it affects self-image and status on the team. The inability to participate in practice creates increased social isolation, all of which exacerbates their emotional response to injury.  

Individuals with abuse histories can suffer more acute psychiatric symptoms in response to injury as a result of an already compromised sense of self, tolerance for stress, frustration and emotional distress.

Individuals with histories of abuse are also at a higher risk for developing eating disorders. It is estimated that 30 percent of individuals who develop eating disorders have abuse histories. Once again, student-athletes are already an at-risk population for developing eating disorders (see Ron Thompson’s article in Chapter 3). Combine this with an abuse history, and the preponderance of this psychiatric condition comes as no surprise.

An injury or incident can derail a student-athlete, causing a psychological free fall. Some of the warning signs are reckless behavior, such as careless sexual encounters, smoking pot, drinking and irritability, which can translate into fighting. Reckless behaviors are efforts to manage intolerable feelings, and are but temporary solutions that inevitably exacerbate the circumstance at best and can land individuals in considerable trouble at the worst.

The free fall can result in destructive thoughts, such as suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm. Student-athletes lose their capacity to manage unacceptable and intolerable feelings, trapping themselves in a black hole of despair.

Student-athletes competing at the collegiate level are at a confluence of circumstances, with limited preparation for the magnitude of the pressures they will encounter. Student-athletes with histories of abuse are subjected to an unusual combination of internal and external pressures that place them at risk for emotional compromise and struggle.

This can be mitigated with keen recognition of the signs of psychiatric distress, combined with early intervention and treatment.

Cindy Miller Aron is a licensed clinical social worker and certified group psychotherapist providing outpatient mental health services, including the assessment, and treatment of depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, traumatic loss, with specializations in group therapy, late adolescence, sports psychology, supervision and consultation. She is a fellow in the American Group Psychotherapy Association and is the founding president of the Oregon Group Psychotherapy Society. Aron is also a member of the Association of Applied Sports Psychology.