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A mental health break seems to have done the trick for champion gymnast Simone Biles.
The four-time Olympic gold medal winner returned to competition after a two-year hiatus to claim first place at the Core Hydration Classic on August 5.
“I worked on myself a lot, I still do therapy weekly, and it’s just been so exciting to come out here and have the confidence I had before,” Biles said in an interview with CNBC after the event in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
In the time since she pulled out of several events during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 — citing the “twisties,” a mental block that causes gymnasts to lose track of their position in midair — Biles has become an advocate for the prioritization of mental health.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael, New York City-based clinical psychologist and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety,” shares what we can learn from Biles’ break.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What can we learn from Simone Biles’ mental health break?
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: I think that her strong performance validates the wisdom of her withdrawal and taking a break. It appears that she really did use that time to recharge and that the break was in service of growth as an athlete and as a professional, which was what she announced.
Now, she’s demonstrating that in her own judgment, she’s in the right place to perform well. And the proof is in the performance.
CNN: Is this kind of time off for everyone?
Carmichael: It’s important that we find the right balance. When you have a professional athlete, we’re talking there about somebody who likely has no shortage of self-discipline. When somebody who tends to err on the side of overdiscipline and overdoing feels that they need to step aside and take a break, it’s a sign of maturity.
It doesn’t have to be a high-profile person. Some of those high-performing people are soccer moms. They’re everyday ordinary people, but they’re just people who are very high on conscientiousness, self-discipline and personal drive.
There are people who, for their mental health, need to learn to build what’s called frustration tolerance skills. Building resilience and learning to stay in that gym class even when you’re sweating and you’re uncomfortable is a good thing for your mental health.
There are other people who tend to err more on the side of a lack of self-discipline, and they can be seduced by a fad around taking a mental health break. What is good for their mental health, what might be most productive, is learning to stay engaged and overcome feelings of discomfort.
We do have to challenge ourselves and overcome stress in order to grow. The simplest example is when you’re lifting: Lifting weights when your muscles shake — that’s when you’re growing.
Of course, there’s a spectrum and we might even have different domains in life. Maybe at work you go hard all the time too much and you need to learn to take a break, but in relationships, you’re always the first to bail.
CNN: How do you know whether you need a mental health break?
Carmichael: I don’t think that there’s a set formula.
I would encourage you first to understand “what is my bias?” When you look at college, you look at work, you look at your relationship history, or when you look at your home, does it tend to reflect somebody who drops out a little early? Do you feel like there are a lot of balls you’ve dropped or things you’ve walked away from? Where, you know, you look back and you say, “I wish I had not given up,” or do you tend to look back and say, “I really got a little obsessed with that”?
CNN: What makes for a good break?
Carmichael: It’s going to depend on each person. For some people, being with your friends is what really nourishes you. You might plan for when you’re finishing a big work project and think, “I’m going to hang out with my girlfriends. That’s the kind of rest I need.” And for some people, it’s just being in bed and sleeping.
Define your break plan from the beginning and be thoughtful about it. Suppose that you’re a student and you’re going into a grueling semester of college. You would do well to say, “OK, there’s going to be a lot of times when I’m going to be pulling long hours. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but I’m going to power through it. I won’t give up. But I will notice that on the syllabus the teacher has told us the dates of the final exam, and I’m going to plan a yoga retreat to occur immediately after my last exam.”
When we feel ourselves on the brink of a breakdown, certainly taking that mental health break, excusing ourselves, is the thing to do. But what we can also do is try to plan so that we don’t end up with some big overload avalanche of stress that comes upon us in the first place.
For people who have a lot of drive. it’s about starting to recognize that rest is not in competition with drive — it actually is supporting drive.
CNN: Are there skills we can hone for better mental health maintenance?
Carmichael: Mindfulness. And I know that’s such a such a vague word. It can mean so many different things for people.
Do even one or two minutes of mindfulness every day, where you just observe your baseline mental state, even if it’s just to notice that your mental state is perfectly normal, noticing that, and it’s kind of boring.
Because every day you’re taking a snapshot of it. And that will help you to have that awareness when you maybe wake up that one day and you do the mindfulness and you think, “Wow, I’m noticing that my mind is super jumpy today. I’m noticing I’m really stressed out. I think it may be that combination of all these deadlines, plus my friends coming into visit, plus the fact that we just finished the holidays.”
That prepares you to notice when you’re going off-kilter.
Driven people can get so goal focused and so mission oriented, that one of our skills is learning how to put aside kind of emotional impulses or mild discomfort. We can almost get too good at that to the point where we don’t register them until they’re kind of at a fire alarm mode.