Cumulative lifetime stress exposure, depression, anxiety, and well-being in elite athletes: A mixed-method study

Ella Mcloughlin, David Fletcher, George Slavich, Rachel Arnold, Lee Moore

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Research suggests that elite athletes are at increased risk of poor mental health, partly due to the intense demands associated with top-level sport. Despite growing interest in the topic, the factors that influence the mental health and well-being of elite athletes remain unclear. From a theoretical perspective, the accumulation of stress and adversity experienced over the life course may be an important factor. To investigate this possibility, we employed a mixed-method design to: (a) examine whether cumulative lifetime stress predicted depression, anxiety, and well-being in elite athletes; and (b) help explain why cumulative lifetime stress exposure might have resulted in poor mental health and well-being. Ninety-five elite athletes (M age = 29.81, SD = 10.88) completed the Stress and Adversity Inventory, Patient Health Questionnaire, Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale, and the Scales of General Well-Being. Hierarchical regression analyses revealed that total count and severity of lifetime stressor exposure significantly predicted greater depression (β =.42, p <.001; β =.46, p <.001) and anxiety symptoms (β =.34, p =.003; β =.28, p =.018), and worse well-being (β = -.42, p <.001; β = -.30, p =.015). Semi-structured interviews were then conducted with six athletes. Thematic analysis revealed that cumulative lifetime stress exposure fostered poor mental health and well-being by promoting maladaptive long-term coping strategies, increasing susceptibility to future stress, and limiting interpersonal relationships. We believe these findings can help practitioners identify, and intervene accordingly with, elite athletes at risk of experiencing stress-related mental health problems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101823
JournalPsychology of Sport and Exercise
Early online date9 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd


  • Adversity
  • Allostatic load
  • Life stress
  • Mental health
  • Performance
  • Pressure
  • Sport
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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