Post-Open Blues? Time for Some Good Old-Fashioned Introspection

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by DR. ALLISON BELGER

Post-Open Blues? Time for Some Good Old-Fashioned Introspection
The CrossFit Open 2014 is over. Thousands of CrossFitters around the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief, enjoy some rest and recovery, and find other things to do with their down time besides check the leaderboard and read coaching tips about workouts. They can let the rips on their hands heal and relax those aching shoulders. They can hang out with their children, free from the distractions of 13-point-something and can revel in the thought of going to the gym with a more relaxed mindset.

Or can they?

It is important to recognize that, alongside the highs, there may also be a collective sigh of regret, a sense of confusion and malaise, a feeling of things left undone. There may be people feeling unsettled, unsure where to focus their energy, and confused about why they feel disconnected in some ways.

Feeling the Blues…

Feeling the Blues...

[F]or the majority of people who competed, this is the end of the road as far as the competition year goes, and endings and transitions are often rich with psychological fodder.
There is a small percentage of athletes for whom the Open turned out extraordinarily well, who will advance to the next phase of competition at Regionals or, for Masters athletes, head directly to the CrossFit Games. For these individuals, there may be a larger sense of relief mixed with excitement and anticipation, as well as an invigorated outlook (even if sprinkled with a good dose of pressure and fatigue). But for the majority of people who competed, this is the end of the road as far as the competition year goes, and endings and transitions are often rich with psychological fodder. I’ll dare say there may even be a small percentage of participants who will experience some form of emotional “blues” or even a mild depression in the wake of having thrown much of themselves, both physically and mentally, into the five-week event.

This may sound hyperbolic to some readers – perhaps I’m just too much of a shrink and too ready to go to the dark side. But I think there is much to be learned in that underbelly of human experience. In talking with many CrossFit Open participants over the past three years, I’ve come to take seriously the effects that participation has on one’s psyche. There are stories of elation and triumph from having overcome obstacles, having hit personal records in lifts, and having mastered skills in the heat of the workout battles. There are stories rich with human connection, of people finding new friends and becoming closer to each other through the trials and tribulations of competition. There are stories of spouses finally understanding the athlete’s investment in their workouts and their lifestyle. And yet, I’m proposing that, much like the condition of postpartum depression after pregnancy, there may be a “condition” involving depressive symptoms in the days and weeks after a consuming event such as the CrossFit Open.

Hang with me here. Have any of you been married? Have any of you put your heart and soul and childhood dreams into your wedding day? Have any of you felt a sense of void after your honeymoon was over? How about those of you who have worked tirelessly as an event planner at work, riding high for weeks and months on the feeling of focus and import that can come with planning a big event and being in charge of numerous people and pieces coming together? Despite the stress involved in such an effort, have you ever felt empty or sad or derailed in some way after it ended, perhaps taking with it a bit of your sense of self worth? Anyone ever have a hard time in the days and weeks after graduating from high school or college? Any triathletes or ultra-marathoners out there ever experience a dip in mood and/or an experience of being wayward in the weeks after crossing the finish line? If none of you say yes to this, some of you are lying.

You’ve probably heard of postpartum depression (PPD), and some of you may have even suffered from it. According to the DSM IV-TR (the handbook of psychiatric/psychological diagnoses used by mental-health professionals), PPD occurs within four weeks of delivery and lasts for at least two weeks. Diagnostic criteria include symptoms associated with a major depressive episode, with impairment of functioning lasting at least as long as two weeks.

PPD occurs within four weeks of delivery and lasts for at least two weeks

What I’m getting at is that there may be a similar pattern of emotional blues that exists after the completion of a significant and exciting event like the CrossFit Open, and how you went into the event likely affects how you will come out of it.
Without getting too deep into the literature on PPD, there are some interesting risk factors associated with it, which, in my mind, may have implications for our feelings of dejection, loss, irritability, etc. after a major event other than pregnancy that has occupied us for some time. For example, women who report symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from PPD, and women with a history of depression are more likely to experience PPD.1 Those with limited social support are also more vulnerable; having strong social connections appears to mitigate susceptibility to PPD.1 That whole social connectedness/community topic runs deep (see my book if you’re interested in this topic). Another important finding is that a large percentage of women experience some sort of low-grade depression after delivering a baby, even though symptoms do not meet diagnostic thresholds.2

What I’m getting at is that there may be a similar pattern of emotional blues that exists after the completion of a significant and exciting event like the CrossFit Open, and how you went into the event likely affects how you will come out of it. Those of you with a history of depression might be more prone to feeling depressed and sad after the Open. Those of you who are prone to anxiety might feel especially confused and unsettled about where to focus your resources now, and you may feel irritable because of your lack of direction. Those with tentative social connections might feel particularly uneasy at the thought of leaving behind the special vibe you have shared with gym members through the Open. Those of you who were totally jazzed and wide-eyed can probably take a positive spin on even the hardest parts of the Open. You may not have as strong a reaction as others, but you can still learn from this time of transition.

When I sat down to write this article, I was curious to see what I could find in looking into the concept of post-event blues. What I found online were numerous personal stories of people who have experienced a significant letdown after an important event or endeavor. Some people even called it “Post-Event Depression,” which is the search term I had used. Much like PPD, I’d say there is a wide range of severity and symptomatology that can occur after the passage of a big event, ranging from no issues at all to a whole slew of issues that impair functioning for a given time period.

A certain percentage of CrossFitters will surely experience some kind of blues in the next couple of weeks. They may question why they ever cared about the Open in the first place, and they may struggle to find a reason to continue training at the level to which they are accustomed.
They may wonder what the purpose of it all is, and they may have a hard time defining another goal that seems worthwhile. Some might have difficulty letting go of images of workouts, no-reps, unfinished business. They might be bitterly questioning the fairness of the Open model, with varying degrees of judging standards withheld across the world. They may feel let down by a coach, a gym’s programming, or their own deficiencies in skills. Again, I realize this is only part of the story. For every athlete who is dejected in some way, there are plenty of others who are on cloud nine – loving the rush of having competed, having lived outside of their comfort zone, and having exceeded all expectations of themselves.

The big picture is about the totality of our experience, and if we only focus on the upsides, we sell ourselves short and ignore an opportunity for self-reflection and growth that might reap great rewards as we approach our next venture.
The Open is but one example of a physical endeavor that, once over, might have significant repercussions for one’s state of mind. Marathons, adventure races, adult sports leagues, and other physical outlets requiring time, focus, and energy can also lead to a postpartum experience that is not all peaches and cream. Once again, this doesn’t mean there isn’t also elation, a sense of accomplishment, joy, inspiration, and motivation. But those are the easy and fun parts. The big picture is about the totality of our experience, and if we only focus on the upsides, we sell ourselves short and ignore an opportunity for self-reflection and growth that might reap great rewards as we approach our next venture. The same is true for non-sport events — those that absorb much of our time and energy in the realm of our work lives, our social lives, or our spiritual lives. We can learn a lot from the post-event roller coaster if we pay attention while we’re on the ride.

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