Dealing with anxiety in athletes – tips from an anxiety sufferer

Anxiety is something that many of us live with through our lives. Thanks to increased research over the years, more and more is being understood about anxiety (and other forms of mental health). More people are becoming comfortable with talking about their struggles with anxiety, with many wanting to share their stories to help others. Shona Hirons is one of those people.


Shona Hirons is a Performance and Wellbeing Consultant. She’s also the Founder of Mindset in Motion, working to deliver mental health consultancy and mindfulness in the workplace. Shona grew up competing professionally in swimming. She swam for her county, then country, then secured a place in the 1990 Commonwealth Games which she sadly wasn’t able to compete in due to a knee injury.

We’ve recently been in touch with Shona and she inspired us so much with her amazing story, that we asked if she’d feature on our blog. People of all ages suffer with their mental health. Did you know that 1 in 4 people in the UK deal with a mental health problem each year? Because of this, and the nature of work that Shona does, she agreed to write an article to help sports clubs help their own athletes who may struggle with their mental health.

Keeping active doesn’t only help your physical health. It has endless benefits for your mental health too.

  • It reduces stress 

    Being active gives you a better balance of cortisol levels. Prolonged exposure to higher cortisol levels have been linked to a wide range of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, lowered immune response, depression and anxiety.
  • It improves mood

    When exercising, the brain chemistry changes through the release of endorphins, which can lift mood, can calm anxiety.
  • It lifts self-esteem 

    Reduced anxiety and happier moods through the release of neurotransmitters, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. When people start to see their fitness levels and bodies improve, it can give their confidence and self-esteem a big boost.
  • There is a lowers risk of depression

    One study has found that by increasing activity levels from doing nothing to exercising at least 3 times a week, people reduced the risk of depression by up to 30% – Department of Health 2011.
  • There is a reduction in racing thoughts

    As the body tires, so does the mind, leaving people calmer and better able to think clearly.
  • It improves sleep 

    Better quality of sleep – through the release of serotonin.

Athletes who have either been forced to retire from their chosen sport through injury or mental health can often become depressed and have eating disorders, because of negative body image. They will have spent years going through gruelling training regimes, which are both physically and emotionally draining and when that stops many athletes don’t know how to cope.

From my own experience, being into many serious sports during my life and having to quit for a number of months each time due to various injuries, I have found this very difficult to deal with and struggled with both body image and the withdrawal of not being able to work out to some extent on a daily basis. For me, nothing has come close to filling that void. I have however, found that mindfulness and good nutrition has helped me a lot.


Tips for helping athletes struggling with mental health

  • If someone has negative perceptions about their body, as a Coach I would research how to help them to gain confidence with their body image.
  • If they aren’t comfortable with the idea of joining a group of ‘strangers’, I would help and support them meeting new people.
  • If they sometimes find it difficult to leave the house, I would research how to help them to manage their depression.
  • If medication contributes to weight gain, I would advise that physical activity can help with weight loss.
  • If someone used to be keen on sport, I would try my best to help them rediscover their love for it.
  • If they live alone, I would help them see that it’s an opportunity for social interaction.

There are also situations where exercise starts to take over someone’s life, and they could be developing exercise or training compulsion. It can also be a form of OCD.

For some people, taking medication can have implications for the type and level of exercise that’s safe for them to do. It is advisable to check with a GP first.


Tips to coach by

  • Try not to be judgemental
  • Have empathy and understanding
  • Let them be in control of their decisions
  • Offer to help them find support
  • Remind them of positive qualities and things they do well
  • Have honest communication

Tips for being active with anxiety

For people who experience anxiety, exercise may make them feel like they’re having a panic attack. Here are some tips on how to ease them in gently:

  • Start off slowly: This can help people spot the difference between the physical effects of exercise and a panic attack.
  • Take deep, slow breaths.
  • Help the individual to decide which activities are best for them right now.
  • Choose to do some jogging or walking at the local park rather than heading for a busy gym.

Michael Harrington – Crystal Palace Coach quotes “Knowing people are always there. Listen about mental health problems and sign-post where people can go to. This leads to long-term success.”



  • A good Coach is a caring Coach.
  • Just as we have physical health, we also have mental health.
  • We need to be able to respond to the needs of everyone – be welcoming and talk to everyone.
  • We need to talk to people about mental health.
  • We should be getting feedback.
  • We should demonstrate increased awareness – what makes people anxious etc.?
  • Pay attention.
  • Keep information confidential.
  • No judgements.
  • C – oaching and Customer Skills
  • A – wareness
  • R – espect
  • E – mpathy

Originally published:–tips-from-an-anxiety-sufferer