Professional Athlete is Beating Depression with Authentic Meaning and Happiness

Professional Athlete is Beating Depression with Authentic Meaning and Happiness

Written by Dr. Cory Reich, Ph.D., Posted on , in Section Editors Picks

Some of us might believe that professional athletes have it all. They have money, fame, and success, what do they have to be depressed about? However, most are not well known, are not cash flush, and feel they are fighting every day to demonstrate that they are worth keeping! Needless to say, like most professionals, they feel an overwhelming pressure to perform and must harness emotions and skills on a level that allows them to optimize their performance and retain value. 

One afternoon I received a call from one such an athlete. He expressed that he had succumbed to the debilitating pressure of performance expectations and the associated challenges that come with personal life stressors that are specific to relationship and support issues. He indicated that the depression had reached a point that he could barely leave the house. He shared that he felt that the ability to harness both emotions and motivation to work out and maintain the competitive edge was gone.

Depressed athlete on bench

Back to the Basics

I was immediately impressed by this athletes humility, strength of character, and motivation to do well in life. While I knew that we would need to identify what life issues were most important to him, the associated stressors and the ability to leverage signature strengths, addressing the basics is always the first step. It has been my experience that three foundational issues are critical in restoring a sense of controllability in life and bringing the body to a baseline that is essential in managing depression and reclaiming the purpose for living.

Eating Habits

There is a tendency, when stressed and depressed, to see our eating habits change. The desire to eat sugar, fat, and salt provides the greatest amount of pleasure to the taste buds and the pleasure system in the brain. As a result, many stressed and depressed individuals medicate through the pallet.

Sure enough, this athlete had experienced a huge shift in eating habits to binging on the sweets and eating fast food. As a result, we addressed and defined nutrition and eating times to support better health, energy, and self-evaluation of reclaiming personal control in the area of food consumption. Eating habits were a big trigger for this athlete, the more he succumbed to poor eating habits, the more he became discouraged and depressed. Reclaiming the will and the discipline to eat healthy had a profound positive impact.


Exercise had also been severely neglected, as it often is with depression. The negative emotions associated with working out triggered the “grudging have to” and had robbed the formerly enjoyed “willing want to.” We reframed working out to associate with just good health and paired it with positive and optimistic emotions that stood independent of the professional sport he belonged. The daily structure of time, place, and intensity was defined and followed. Again, as the exercise of choice and will was reclaimed, positive emotions around controllability and optimism started to return.

Sleeping Patterns

Sleep issues frequently accompany depression. Insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to return to sleep, staying in bed all day, are all part of the sleeping deprivation and hygiene that contribute to the destructive cycle of depression. However, I have also found that when eating habits and exercise are being managed, sleep comes easier.

We rehearsed sleep preparation, trying to go to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time when possible. We did not consider sleep aids initially, hoping that our work could accomplish our goal without medication. We found success with our work and sleeping habits were formed and restored.

Athlete exercising on treadmill

Authentic Meaning

It is easy to allow an occupation or a specific area in our life to dominate all others when the perception is that the quality of our life depends on it. Research indicates that we do best when we feel balanced in our life. We know that when we are balanced we recognize we have 40 to 50 areas or domains in life that we value and define ourselves by. While each domain is not equally important, the balanced life identifies those things that we believe in, have value for and are committed to in these respective areas.

Often, professional athletes find that they have neglected important areas of their life. When we place too much emphasis in one domain, we become very susceptible to depression when things do not go well in that area. We also struggle with negative emotions due to other areas of our life that are being neglected. 

As we took the time to define those areas and interest that he valued as being most important, we began looking at the power of choice and signature strengths. He started to define those domains, schedule time to be in those commitments, and celebrate them. As balance started to return, the grip of performance in the domain of his profession loosened its choke hold. Signature strengths within multiple domains started to be rediscovered and expressed. As this discovery took place, amidst the balance, confidence occurred and signature strengths started to cross pollinate other domains.

The Work of Positive Emotions vs. Negative Emotions

One of the prevailing characteristics of being depressed is that of generalizing and projecting negative emotions. When a negative emotion is felt concerning a specific issue or outcome, the depressed person has a tendency to generalize to all areas of their life and believe they will have little or no control now or in the future. Thus, hope is consumed and despair dominates.

Interestingly, depressed persons have a tendency to have a 1 to 1 ratio of negative to positive evaluative views of daily experiences. Whereas, more optimistic and positive people have a 2 to 1 ratio of tallying daily events. They see 2 positive events to the 1 negative.

Both the generalization of negative emotions, projecting into the future and seeing mostly negative events in his day were characteristic of this athlete. As a result, we started to employ the exercise of doing what optimistic and happy people do, we started to work on being more specific in defining why things happened and what that meant to him. We also worked at identifying what could be done to influence outcomes, and restoring hope in the future. While it took a lot of work, this athlete started to reprogram the way he looked at and evaluated his day. It was wonderful to see the happiness advantage slowly return.

Athlete with girlfriend

Gratification not Pleasure

Gratification is often confused with the experience of pleasure. While pleasure feels good, it typically has a very short shelf life. Eating a great meal, enjoying a movie, a massage, or whatever else the pleasure may consist of. The difficult part comes when we begin to confuse pleasure for gratification and expect the same outcome. Pleasure, with its short shelf life can cause us to feel like we are investing in a colander and wonder why life holds no sustaining gratification.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, a well known expert in positive psychology, differentiates between pleasure and gratification in this way. When we are engaged in pleasures we are primarily just consuming, with the corresponding pleasure being enjoyed in the moment, not really building anything for the future. Identifying specifically, that pleasures are not characterized by investments is critical. Whereas, when we are investing in those areas of our life that have deep meaning, it is characterized by hard effort which draws upon personal signature strengths. A determination to identify and develop signature strengths serves as the great defense against depression. These investments create gratifications that mark the achievement of psychological growth.

As this athlete placed the proper expectation with pleasures and differentiated personal investments through the utilization of strengths, gratifications became more clearly defined and enjoyed. Excitement and energy came back and he found a renewal in a fresh view of himself, towards others, and the world in which he lived. While the process was not easy, and the ebb and flow of life is still a challenge, he gained the knowledge and the confidence of what he can do to create the life he desires.