Soldiers and Elite Athletes Cope With Similar Challenges, Says Olympic Athlete Alexi Pappas
Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas (left) shared her struggle with severe depression, and how treating the brain "like a body part" and the support of loved ones helped her recovery, during a recent ARD webinar. (Photo Credit: Photo by Fred Goris, courtesy of Alexi Pappas) VIEW ORIGINAL

Soldiers are also athletes, and just like all athletes Soldiers need to take care of themselves both physically and mentally.

“There truly is so much overlap between the world of Olympic athletics and the military: we are all elite athletes whose mission it is to push ourselves beyond our limits to achieve extraordinary goals,” Alexi Pappas, an Olympian, author, and actress, told a world-wide audience during a recent webinar hosted by the Army Resilience Directorate.

Pappas—who recently published her memoir “Bravey,” in which she talks about her experiences competing in the Olympics, coping with injury, depression, and her mother’s death by suicide—shared a message of resilience and the significance of treating the brain like a body part during the webinar.

Dealing with injuries and severe depression after competing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, Pappas, with support from family and friends, sought treatment from a mental health doctor who told her that her brain had a “scratch on it.” An injury. For Pappas it was an epiphany.

“The brain is a body part like any other, and mental health injuries like depression and anxiety can heal over time, just like any other injury,” Pappas said, noting that it may help if this idea was integrated into the culture of elite athletes and the military.

Once Pappas began to treat her brain as any other body part, her entire outlook switched. She changed her mental approach to treatment: her doctor became like a coach, going to her mental health appointments was like reporting to practice, seeing her therapist was just like seeing a chiropractor or getting a sports massage. She urged webinar attendees to adopt the same mentality.

Treating the brain as a body part also requires that we talk about mental health injuries in similar terms. Just as we give solid advice to teammates with physical injuries, we must do the same for mental health and brain injuries.

“If we have a teammate who tears an ACL, would we visit them at home a week later and tell them to snap out of it or ‘man up’?” Pappas asked. “That's because culturally, we understand that there's a healing process associated with physical injuries. And it's important for everyone to understand that it's the same with mental health injuries too. They're just injuries.”

Pappas also shared the importance of choosing optimism because it’s “not about deciding to suddenly be happy. You can't just choose to be happy. Instead, it's about understanding that you can heal.”

“In time Soldiers, elite athletes, and everyone for that matter, will be just as vigilant in caring for their mental health as their physical health. We all want to perform our best and there is nothing weak about that,” Pappas said.

ARD offers a variety of performance and resilience training—from cultivating optimism to building confidence, learning mindfulness, attention control, goal setting and much more—to help Soldiers perform consistently and to their full potential regardless of circumstances. To learn more, visit the ARD website: https://www.armyresilience.army.mil/ard/R2/R2-Performance-center.html.