Constant pressure to be the best can destroy your mental health. Here’s how to take a cue from Olympians Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka and step back.

Simone Biles.

Gymast Simone Biles has dropped out of two events at the 2020 Olympics, highlighting the intense pressure of performing at an elite level.

Biles pulled out of the women’s gymnastics all-around finals in Tokyo on Tuesday after receiving her lowest score in her Olympics career. She pulled out of a second individual event on Wednesday.

Biles said Wednesday: "After the performance I did, I just didn’t want to go on. I have to focus on my mental health."

Tennis player Naomi Osaka, meanwhile, had returned to the spotlight after an 8-week break to protect her mental health. On Tuesday she was defeated by Czech Marketa Vondrousova, leaving her without a medal. She said: "I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this," and it felt "a bit much."

The two have drawn praise for openly prioritizing their mental health, with former Team GB medalist Callum Skinner telling ITV News that they and other athletes had demonstrated "we are just as susceptible to shortcomings and illnesses as anyone in general society."

The discussions have dominated headlines in part because "the world sadly is not set up for wellbeing to be prioritized," according to Dr Audrey Tang, a UK psychologist. "We get told we need to achieve this title, or this amount of money, and that we need to do more and more."

Here’s how anyone who constantly pushes themselves can take a step back:

1. Treat mental health like physical health

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Dr Tang asks people to reflect on a crucial question: "Why should mental health be perceived so differently to physical health?"

She highlights that people’s reactions would be different if Simone Biles had sustained a physical injury: "Had Simone Biles retired because of physical injury, we need to ask ourselves, why would we be so much more understanding if that was the case, as opposed to now?"

Physical health and injuries are "obvious," she added and taking the time to recover and heal is considered normal and valid. Poor mental health requires just as much attention and time to get better.

2. Perceive your existence as worthy without conditions

women soaking up the sun

Intense pressure to succeed can result in achievement-oriented people putting their health and wellbeing on the back burner.

Dr Tang said that this is something "we are taught from a very early age."

"Sometimes children are even brought up before that with conditional love," she said. "Conditional value. You’re not good enough unless you win. You’re not good enough unless you succeed in those exams, you’re not good enough unless you’re the pretty one or the popular one. We already have those almost conditional rules built in."

To unlearn conditional love, we need to instead "see ourselves with unconditional worth, that who we are is so much more important than what we’ve succeeded in."

3. Acknowledge when you’re out of sync with your routine

woman in sleeping mask

Maintaining a regular routine, and keeping an eye on when that routine starts to slide, can help stave off the onset of poor mental health.

Transpersonal psychotherapist Alejandra Sarmiento — who focuses on patients’ spiritual wellbeing at mental health clinic The Soke — said: "Anything that is different from your norm is usually a good indicator that something has shifted out of sync and then it’s understanding yourself … it’s that awareness that comes within."

Dr Tang said those changes might include "not sleeping or sleeping too much" or "not being able to eat, or for others it will be comfort eating." 

4. Practice gratitude

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One way to prioritize mental health is by practising gratitude. Dr Tang describes it as a "bit like prayer" and "a bit like spiritual practice." 

Gratitude practice is about appreciating the good things in your life — seeking the people and things that make you happy.

She said: "This gratitude practice, if done regularly, starts working with our brains, neuroplasticity, in other words, if we’ve been thinking negatively for a long time, it actually helps us to prime ourselves to think more positively and it helps produce more endorphins.

"It helps produce dopamine, the happy chemical helps all of those things."

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Sawdah Bhaimiya July 30, 2021 at 06:00PM

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