Similarities of burnout and PTSD

 In Coaches, Confidence, Professional & Olympic Athletes

I talk to a lot of athletes about avoiding burnout and I talk to some who are in the midst of burnout; helping them sort through how to deal with it. It’s not really until now that I’ve worked with more than one elite athlete who’s experienced burnout, helping them to deal with the continued aftermath of it.

Similar to PTSD

What I am starting to see if that the aftermath of burnout is similar in some ways to post-traumatic stress disorder. What is PTSD? After a traumatic experience (i.e. burnout and over-training syndrome), it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But if the upset doesn’t fade and you feel stuck with a constant sense of danger and painful memories, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. Any overwhelming life experience can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.

The traumatic events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder are usually so overwhelming and frightening that they would upset anyone. Following a traumatic event, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb. It’s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. These are normal reactions to abnormal events.

For most people, however, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually lift. But if you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms don’t decrease. You don’t feel a little better each day. In fact, you may start to feel worse.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell.

While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three main types of symptoms:

– Re-experiencing the traumatic event
– Avoiding reminders of the trauma
– Increased anxiety and emotional arousal (Source)

How are they similar

I haven’t (yet) had an experience with a client where burnout and PTSD are the same but for an elite athlete burnout is traumatic and not only do athletes feel frightened, sad, anxious and disconnected but their livelihood is threatened and the only way they know how to deal with it (if and when it’s recognized) is to slow down their training until they begin to feel better. This means that the training changes, probably not to the degree it needs to and they haven’t dealt with the mental aspects of their burnout.

In burnout as is similar to PTSD people relive the feelings associated with the original traumatizing event whenever they find themselves in the same or similar situations. Also common to both is bad dreams, feeling fearful, and finding it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. In my experience the original situation, how the feelings arise again and the commonalities vary in degree from burnout to PTSD but I think that they exist.

The symptoms associated with PTSD don’t decrease and I think for elite athletes (maybe any athlete) who has dealt with burnout, (maybe) to a lesser degree it’s similar. The fear and anxiety around having burnout again and how that impacts training and competition can be a huge problem; which is what I am currently finding with a couple of my athletes who have gone through severe burnout.

In my experience working with clients it is absolutely true that athletes who’ve been burnout fall into these three categories of PTSD symptoms:

– Re-experiencing the traumatic event
– Avoiding reminders of the trauma
– Increased anxiety and emotional arousal

Treatment for PTSD

Treatment for PTSD relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, treatment will encourage you to recall and process the emotions and sensations you felt during the original event. In addition to offering an outlet for emotions you’ve been bottling up, treatment for PTSD will also help restore your sense of control and reduce the powerful hold the memory of the trauma has on your life.

In treatment for PTSD, you’ll:

– Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
– Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
– Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories
– Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships

How do I help athletes deal with the aftermath of burnout

– Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
– Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
– Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories
– Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships

Besides working with clients in these areas I have been doing a lot of work with my clients to help them rebuild their confidence. The aftermath of burnout leaves elite athletes with less confidence around their ability to trust themselves and their coaching staff particularly in high pressure, competitive situations.

Burnout is a terrible thing for an athlete and particularly difficult because they usually don’t really know what is going on for a long time until they get sick or hit rock bottom with their training. Besides hitting rock bottom with their training there are a host of psychological ramifications to burnout (which are starting to look a little bit like post-traumatic stress disorder) which seemingly go undetected for a much longer period of time impacting the athlete along the way.

If you are worried about, in the midst of experiencing or have experienced burnout, get help.


Dr. Michelle Cleere
In her own private practice as an elite performance expert, Dr. Michelle Cleere helps top athletes, musicians, and executives in competitive fields unlock the power of the mind and create the mental toughness to be the best. Dr. Michelle’s extensive academic background, which includes a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Masters in Sports Psychology, allows her to help clients deal with performance anxiety, gain more confidence, and build resilience. In addition to personal coaching, Dr. Michelle takes on many roles – a best-selling author, athlete, and teacher. Dr. Michelle’s bestseller line, Beating the Demons, helps clients develop practical skills to gain more control over competitive environments and mitigate the interruption in play to overcome intense odds and defeat adversity. As a 15-year USAT Coach, she developed simple and effective tools to mentally train her athletes, and they are used by coaches around the world. She is a professor at John F. Kennedy University where she teacher her students to use the mind as an ally to improve performance.
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