How Michael Phelps Manages Stress

You may know him as one of the greatest Olympians to ever represent the United States, but Michael Phelps is so much more than that. Apart from being a world-class swimmer, Phelps has overcome the hurdle of suffering from depression and anxiety throughout his career. He’s managed to fight through it and make it to the other side successfully. But what has he done and what are his strategies for coping with his mental health issues? 

Michael Phelps’ career overview

Michael Phelps, seated, smiling in front of a blue background
Michael Phelps |Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Phelps holds the world record for most Olympic medals won by a single athlete. He has 23 gold medals with 13 individual golds. Phelps received a spot on five Olympic teams, the first male athlete to do so. He was also the oldest person to win a gold medal in Olympic swimming history at the tender old age of 28.

Phelps holds 39 world records, which in and of itself is a record. He’s the most accomplished swimmer in history. Due to his athletic prowess, Phelps may seem like he’d be impervious to the pitfalls of anxiety. That assumption is incorrect, however. 

How Michael Phelps has managed stress throughout his career

Phelps has battled depression throughout his life, but he found his low point after a 2014 DUI. At that point, Phelps even began to suffer from suicidal thoughts

“I questioned whether I wanted to be alive anymore…I realized that I’m the strongest person I know, but at that moment I was the weakest.”

Phelps was able to recover through therapy (more on that below) and by employing some stress-relief techniques. A few of those include: 

  • Lion breaths. This is something Phelps and his wife have taught their son, Boomer, how to do. It involves taking as deep a breath as possible followed by one massive exhale. 
  • He identifies his emotions. When experiencing anxiety, Phelps takes a moment to take stock of exactly why he’s feeling the way he is. He identifies the emotion he’s experiencing at the moment.
  • Exercise. Phelps cites working out as an important activity in managing stress. 
  • Not listening to critics. As someone in the public eye, Phelps has his fair share of detractors and naysayers. He’s learned to tune them out and ignore them, not feeling accountable to them to explain himself. 
  • He asks for help. Phelps has learned to look to someone he trusts – whether that’s family, friends, or a therapist – to lean on when he’s experiencing anxiety. 
  • Self-acceptance. Phelps has learned to not attempt to fight his stress, accepting that sometimes he just wasn’t going to be OK – and that was OK.

Michael Phelps’ digital partnership helps him better manage stress

One of the biggest breakthroughs Phelps underwent in his battle with anxiety is his decision to pursue therapy. As a hyper-competitive athlete, Phelps had previously resisted the urge to go to therapy. It was when he accepted that it was something that could help him that he made the positive choice to go

“Prior to going to therapy, I never wanted to do it…It wasn’t something I wanted, to go and sit on a couch and have a conversation. I was always somebody who tried to find ways myself to do it and was very stubborn for a long time and had a hard time communicating.”

Connecting with a therapist helped Phelps open up, become vulnerable, and get help. Phelps has become a spokesman for TalkSpace, an app that allows its users to meet with professional therapists in a safe, trustworthy setting through texting, audio, or video chat. As more people look to their phones for more goods and services, more digital therapy services are becoming available such as BetterHelp, Lantern, 7 Cups of Tea, and others. Phelps is a good example of a success story for those types of apps.