- Michael Phelps has launched a campaign with Talkspace to encourage people to incorporate mental health care into their new year’s resolutions.
- The campaign focuses on sleeping, moving, breathing, disconnecting, and reaching out for help to ensure mental wellness.
- Phelps hopes to help more people gain the tools they need to better care for their mental well-being throughout the year and beyond.
Goal setting has been part of Michael Phelps’ life since he was 8 years old. His swim coach at the time encouraged him to set goals regularly.
“I’ve always had them written down on a piece of paper. I’m kind of old school where when I wake up in the morning, I want to be able to see when I’m getting out of bed what I’m trying to accomplish,” Phelps told Healthline.
Setting short and long-term goals, achieving them, and then adding more to his goal list played a part in making Phelps the most decorated American Olympian of all time.
“Every day, I didn’t feel perfect. I felt kind of like I got ran over by a bus sometimes. I still had to get up and do those things that I needed to allow me the chance to accomplish my goals,” he said.
While much of his swim career was based on physical goals that he met time and again, over the past 20 years, he’s also realized the significance of mental health goals.
“[All the things] that I did in my career were technically perfect with the body I was given. I was swimming as efficiently as I could with every single stroke that I took [but as far as being] mentally fit, I probably could have done some more work,” said Phelps.
In 2004, he won six gold and two bronze medals at the Athens Olympics, but once the event ended, he felt “post-Olympic depression,” which led to years of living with anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
In 2014, after receiving his second DUI, Phelps forced himself to get help for his mental well-being, something he said saved his life.
“It was a very difficult thing to do because I didn’t really know how to do it or what to do. [When] I did ask for help I saw that I was able to really learn a lot about myself and I felt that I was more relaxed, my shoulders were lower, I could process things easier, and life just became simpler. I was able to be me in this over-complicated world,” Phelps said.
Like many people at the start of the year, Phelps makes resolutions. This year, he aims to stick with household routines he created with his wife during the pandemic, squat over 400 pounds, and listen more attentively.
“[I] have a tendency to interrupt people because I get to so excited by what they’re saying and instead of just listening to what they’re saying I’m excited to input what I want to say,” he said.
However, his biggest goal for 2023 is to spread awareness about mental health, including suicide prevention.
“[I] have an idea of what suicide looks like because I didn’t want to be alive at one point. There are so many people that are suffering and suffering in similar ways that I am, so really being able to teach and pass along knowledge that I found…[is] something that’s so important,” he said.
To reach as many people as possible, Phelps launched the “Start from the Top” campaign with Talkspace to encourage individuals to incorporate mental healthcare into their new year’s resolutions. The campaign focuses on 5 ways to improve mental well-being. They are:
- talk to someone.
“When we were talking about the campaign, I loved the idea of starting from the top,” said Phelps.
He suggested creating a routine with each category by dedicating 30 days to each one before moving on to the next.
“If you get into a routine, you basically create habits. If you create habits, then it becomes second nature…then you can figure out what other things you want to tackle, and then you can start focusing on that while you’re still focusing on [your first goal],” he said.
For instance, as a swimmer, he figured out how to do the best kicking, and once he had perfected it, he would practice it for 30 days.
“Then I’d get in the pool and be like, ‘cool now I can focus on streamline or kick-off, or foot turns’ because naturally the kick is there and it’s on autopilot,” said Phelps.
Gina Moffa, LCSW, psychotherapist, said both physical and mental routines are needed for overall well-being.
“If we are someone who struggles with anxiety or depression, our physical routines can play an integral part in the treatment of more intrusive symptoms,” Moffa told Healthline. “We focus so much on self-development and self-improvement at the start of every year, but we leave out self-care and self-compassion. This means including our mental and emotional needs into the equation and asking ourselves what self-care can look like to us.”
Phelps shared his personal goals for each of the five categories in his latest campaign and how he plans to achieve them.
When it comes to sleeping in 2023, Phelps is focused on getting seven and a half to eight hours of sleep with each night of sleep consisting of 20% REM and 20% deep sleep.
“If I can get [all] those numbers in a night then I’m firing on all cylinders,” he said.
This may be due to the fact that sleep helps process and store emotional information and that a lack of sleep can impact the brain’s ability to consolidate and remember positive emotional experiences, explained Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical psychologist, and wellness expert.
“Being able to recall positive emotional experiences is important for managing our mood states and decreasing emotional reactivity,” she told Healthline.
Not only has movement made Phelps the icon he is, but it’s also an integral part of his mental well-being.
According to Moffa, regular movement or physical activity should be part of your mental health toolbox.
“Outside of releasing endorphins, movement can provide a mindfulness aspect to it that reconnects us with our bodies and helps to allow emotions, such as anxiety to move through our bodies instead of staying stagnant,” she said.
Dattilo agreed, and added that exercise releases endocannabinoids, “which enhances our sense of social connection. It also increases our sensitivity to pleasure, which means it makes everything we do more enjoyable,” she said.
Our fast-paced, always-connected culture can lead to poor sleep patterns and higher rates of anxiety, said Moffa.
“Having routines where we turn off our phones and computers several hours before bed and not turn them on or connect immediately in the morning is a way to reconnect to self, emotions, and our emotional and physical needs,” she said.
Phelps turns to 5 or 10-minute breaks to himself throughout the day and said showers and quick naps also help him reset when he’s feeling mentally unwell.
“My depression and anxiety come and go whenever they feel the need to. [Over] the last 8 to 10 years, I’ve been able to really acquire these tools, so you will, and also learn more about who I am and understand myself and what I need in those certain moments,” he said.
Breathing is a powerful determinant of a person’s physical and mental state, over which people have more control over than they think, said Dattilo.
“Breathing is one of the only physiological functions that is both involuntary and voluntary, which means we can influence it intentionally. We can speed it up or lengthen our inhale if we want to feel more energized and alert, or we can slow it down and lengthen our exhale if we want to feel more calm and relaxed,” she said.
The optimal breathing rate to induce a state of “relaxed focus” is about 5 to 6 breaths per minute, or about 10 seconds for one full breath cycle (one inhale, one exhale), Dattilo explained.
For Phelps, taking a lot of breaths is hard and something he joked he needs to improve on dry land.
“In the water, it was a lot easier,” he said.
Talk to someone
Lack of connection is the number one modifiable risk factor for depression, according to a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School. The study considered connection to include a trusted person, such as a family member, partner, friend, pastor, rabbi, teacher, coach, therapist, or counselor.
“Increasing your sense of connection can go a long way when it comes to prevention and enhancing mental wellness,” said Dattilo.
For Phelps, his connection to therapy saved his life and helps keep him mentally well.
“I became very vulnerable to allow myself to get the help and care that I needed. Also, I had to go through and get different therapists from time to time [because] sometimes a therapist might not work me right now and that’s okay too,” he said.
Phelps plans to help others connect with a therapist that’s right for them as part of his latest campaign. He outlined how in an Instagram post in early January. Participants in the campaign are eligible to win a free month of unlimited messaging or live video therapy from Talkspace. For a chance to win, comment on Phelps’ campaign post with #StartfromtheTop and follow @Talkspace to see a list of the 31 winners at the end of the month.