Keith Gabel poses for a photo at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 16, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Mental health is an important topic that has been overlooked for a very long time.
However, it has started to get some attention over the past few years. This is primarily due to influential athletes shedding light on mental health by coming out of the shadows and talking about their struggles with depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is still a very uncomfortable topic for many and is constantly dismissed and overlooked.
To those athletes that have been strong enough to share their stories with the world, I applaud you.
I know all too well what it feels like to struggle with depression and anxiety. I know what it’s like to have a deep dark hole inside that tells you not only are you not good enough, but that you’ll never be good enough, no matter how hard you try. You’re a failure and you always will be a failure.
I know what it’s like to have that question in the back of your mind. It says, “why bother?” or “you have nothing to live for.” It’s gnawing at you day in and day out. It’s like a termite gnawing at a tree from the inside out until it’s so hollow, that one day it crumbles under its own weight. It’s the doubt and insecurity popping up even when you seem to be on the top of the world. Or the feeling you get when just the thought of climbing out of bed makes your heart race. It feels like the world is caving in around you and there’s nothing you can do about it. It feels like there’s so much riding on your shoulders that if you fail, the world fails. I know what it’s like having endless nights of panic attacks with that same feeling of failure spinning the room as if you’re a child in a nightmarish fun house sitting on a terrifying merry-go-round and there’s no end in sight.
As absurd as all that sounds, that’s exactly what it feels like when you suffer from depression and anxiety.
Now I know the feeling on the other end of the spectrum, too. I know what it’s like to take control of your mental health and to have people around you who can help.
I’m no expert, not even close, but as a child, I watched a parent of mine struggle with her demons and lose countless battles to drug addiction because of it. Unfortunately, this was the cause of us as a family living in homeless shelters and eating out of soup kitchens, living in true poverty not knowing where the next meal was going to come from or whether or not we were going to have a place to sleep at night.
I don’t blame her for this. As a matter of fact, I constantly wonder what might have been if someone had offered her help with the actual problem versus always just trying to fix the byproduct of the problem.
But mental health is, I believe, the most important thing we possess. It is the ultimate game changer that can either lead us down a road of success or a road of struggles and failure. What if there wasn’t such a bad stigma attached to the words “mental health?” What would have been possible if she would have been comfortable reaching out for help?
That’s half the problem. People are so worried that society will judge them if they reach out for mental health help. That’s why I started to look at it in a slightly different light. Instead of calling it mental health, I started calling it mental wealth.
I mean if our mental health is the most important thing we possess, then why shouldn’t we look at it as if it was as important as our bank account? Or maybe we look at it as if it was an actual bank account, only this bank account is for our mental dollars instead of our financial dollars.
This concept was presented to me by a coach when I was underperforming in snowboarding. I’ve not only used it in my professional life but in my personal life as well, and please remember these are only one of a few techniques I practice to keep my mental wealth in check. Now when this concept was presented to me, I had trained and trained for years but wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I was beaten down and defeated. I was ready to throw in the towel and quit. The first thing he asked me was, “What were the first three things you did when you woke up on your last race day?”
My answer was:
- I looked at my phone and pulled up social media. At this time, there was a lot of stuff going on in the world and my social media was filled with things that upset me.
- I looked at the weather. On the specific race day that we were talking about, the weather was less than ideal. It had snowed quite a bit the night before, it was flat light and there was more snow in the forecast throughout the day.
- I started thinking about the race and what results I needed to keep my spot on the team. At this point I was feeling the anxiety due to underperformance, and I was really worried about not getting a good result (which actually came to fruition).
After I answered his question, he told me “You’re wasting your mental dollars.”
What he meant was if I wake up every morning with 10 mental dollars in my account and I spend three of them on things I can’t control within the first 20 minutes of my day, I’ve essentially started my day with 30 percent less than I could have had, and they were spent on things that really didn’t matter.
He then posed a second question: What if I spent the day only thinking and worrying about the things I could control versus the things I couldn’t?
The final thing he asked me was, “Why am I so concerned about the results of a race and what may or may not come to fruition based on those results?”
These were interesting concepts to me as I had never thought of any of this before. So, I figured what’s the worst that could happen if I tried this?
The first thing I tried was not concerning myself with things I couldn’t control. This was one of the hardest concepts to practice, however low and behold, it has become one of the most beneficial practices in my life. I don’t pay much attention (or mental dollars) on the things out of my control, and they don’t influence me. That’s not to say I don’t care. I just don’t spend all my time dwelling on them and getting upset, or worse having an anxiety attack because of them.
Over time, I realized I had more time and energy to actually focus on the things that I could control, and it has actually allowed me to have a more positive and optimistic outlook on life. By the time the next season rolled around, I had been practicing this so much that I was able to not focus on the results of a competition, but rather the process.
I instantly saw an improvement in my performances. But the most important thing this practice has given me (mixed with daily mindfulness and meditation) is the opportunity to live my everyday life without constant fear, doubt and anxiety about what the future holds. I must admit, I’m not perfect. I still have my bad days just like anyone else. They are just fewer and farther between than in the past.
I don’t know where I’d be today had I not reached out for help. This step, though it was hard to do at the time, was the first step to creating drastic improvement in my life.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health issue and are looking to connect with a mental health provider please reach out to the Team USA Mental Health Support Line (24/7) at +1 (719) 866-CALL. In the process of helping yourself, you may be inspiring courage in others to seek help as well.
For more information about mental health resources please visit TeamUSA.org/MentalHealth.