In a recent article published online in “The Players’ Tribune,” Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, discussed his ongoing battle with panic attacks. Although the condition is not rare, anytime a professional athlete admits to a mental health condition it becomes noteworthy.
A panic attack is an episode of intense fear when no apparent danger is present. The person feels a sense of impending doom and loss of control. This triggers a reaction with symptoms that can include: a rapid, pounding heart rate, sweating, trembling, difficulty breathing, nausea, chest pain and numbness. There is often a feeling of unreality or detachment.
This cascade of symptoms is also known as the “fight or flight response.” This is a primitive response designed to protect a person when threatened by an attacker. This complex reaction begins in the brain where the amygdala and hypothalamus respond involuntarily to a situation. This occurs without conscious input of judgment provided by the frontal lobes.
These structures in the brain then send signals to the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline that in turn causes the physiologic response described.
Successful athletes are able to trigger this response to their advantage and as a result can improve performance. In the case of Love, his false perception of danger has caused episodes where he temporarily cannot function at a high level.
“Current treatments include medications and behavioral interventions designed to identify and reduce the symptoms. One of the best treatments, in the short term, is an anti-anxiety medication,” reports Dr. Caleb Peck, a Norwich neuropsychologist and Director of Clarus Health Alliance. “The best treatment outcome comes from pairing medication with individual psychotherapy.”
Love’s admission of a mental health condition, coupled with his level of fame, will hopefully lead to other athletes seeking care.
Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org