Injury-related depression

When athletes suffer an injury, it's not just the body that takes the hit. Athletes' psyches can also suffer. What is it about physical injuries that can lead to depression?

Losing something you enjoy. Most athletes love the sport they play. They love the competition, and because they're good at competing, they love the success they have. An injured athlete may also stop going to practice and games, and be left out of activities with other players. For many athletes, the team is a big part of their social circle, and when that's taken away, it's a loss.

Losing the physical benefits of exercise. When an athlete is injured, he may gain weight and lose conditioning, which can be discouraging. There's also a direct physiological risk. An athlete who is not exercising doesn't get the benefits of endorphins - those feel-good brain chemicals - that come from exercise.

Anxiety about the injury. There may be surgeries, pain, and time-consuming physical therapy to contend with. He may also need to cope with a great deal of uncertainty. Do I have a serious injury? Will I have to have surgery? Will I be out for the season?

So what should athletes do when they experience an injury? The first thing is to be aware that discouragement and feeling down can occur. Though it's common to have these feelings intermittently, if they are there all the time, talking to someone may be helpful. Try some of these suggestions:

Stay involved with your sport and your team. Sit with your team at games, if possible. See whether you can take on another role on your team. Become the team cheerleader, help out in the equipment room, or see whether your coach will allow you to mentor junior players.

Stay as fit as possible. The team trainer or physical therapist can work with you to create an exercise plan modified to your needs. If you've had a lower-body injury, for example, you might focus on upper-body workouts. Keeping as fit as possible will help you return to the team sooner and will lessen your anxiety.

Watch what thoughts are running through your head. Though a little discouragement and anxiety is normal, watch out for that downward spiral into all the possible worst-case scenarios. Make an effort to do things you enjoy and to be around people who support you.

Sarah Whitman is a sports psychiatrist at Drexel University College of Medicine.