• A recent study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise found a connection between athletes with internal irrational beliefs, as shown by negative self-talk, and increased anxiety and depressive symptoms.
  • Negative thoughts about sport can also become habitual, which can hinder self-confidence and lead to other mental health struggles.
  • Experts offer ways for runners to address these negative thought patterns.

Ample research has connected regular exercise with mental health benefits—for example, a study in The Lancet notes that those who work out consistently had fewer days of poor mental health compared to those who don't exercise. However, that doesn’t mean athletes are immune to emotional difficulties.

New research published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise suggests athletes may have unique stressors, including concern about injury risk and anxiety about competitions. To determine how issues like these affect self-confidence, researchers looked at more than 400 athletes across a variety of sports, including a breadth of ages and experience levels.

They found that athletes’ belief systems, and especially beliefs that seemed irrational, were connected to lower self-confidence with increased incidence of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Researchers identified these beliefs through phrases such as “others think I’m not good at what I do, that shows I’m worthless,” or “my position on this team isn’t secure,” or “I’ll never make it.”

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When negative self-talk like this becomes habitual, it creates a foundation of self-doubt that skews more thoughts in a negative direction, according to lead author Paul Mansell, Ph.D.(c), researcher at the school of sport, exercise, and rehabilitation sciences at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

“This creates a maladaptive thought process that begins with irrational beliefs and leads to automatic, negative thoughts that may undermine an athlete’s self-confidence,” he told Runner's World. “This can lead to psychological distress and depression symptoms.”

Becoming more aware of these thoughts can be a step toward identifying mental health challenges, he added. Being able to pivot toward a more rational, self-supportive stream of thoughts can not only be protective in terms of reducing anxiety and depression risk, it can also give an athlete a stronger sense of control, said Mansell.

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One starting point to address these thoughts: Envision all the resources available to you—teammates, trainer, coach, therapist, friends, family, and so on—that help you cope with the demands of stressful situations.

It’s also helpful to remember that more positive small talk may actually change your brain chemistry, according to Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., author of Habits of a Happy Brain. Although she wasn't involved in the recent research, Breuning has studied the way negative self-talk affects hormone regulation.

“When people default to negative thinking, that can increase your level of cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress response,” she told Runner's World. “When cortisol increases, it lowers hormones related to calmness and joy, like dopamine and serotonin. Over time, this becomes an automatic response.”

The mind gets into patterns, she added, and it does take effort to shift in a different direction. She suggested writing down thoughts centering around your exercise or competition performance, because seeing them in such a concrete form can be surprising.

“In many cases, people may not realize how negative they’ve become until it’s right there in front of them,” said Breuning. “Consciously and deliberately changing the way you talk to yourself is an important step not just for your sports performance, but also for your mental health overall.”

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Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.