England Test captain Ben Stokes has opened up about his mental health after taking a six-month break from the sport in 2021 after suffering from panic attacks.
Stokes had experienced a rollercoaster few years containing both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, having been charged and subsequently acquitted of affray in 2018 after he was involved in an incident outside a nightclub in 2017.
Stokes felt badly let down by the ECB’s handling of the episode and even contemplated international retirement before being talked out of it. He then enjoyed a stunning 2019, being named player of the match as England won the 50-over World Cup in a dramatic final against New Zealand and then producing one of the greatest innings of all time to keep the Ashes alive.
The following year, Stokes’ father Ged was diagnosed with brain cancer and tragically passed away in December at the age of 65. And as Stokes grieved the death of his father, battled a serious finger injury and dealt with the demands of playing cricket in bio-bubbles because of the Covid pandemic, he made the important decision to step away from the sport to prioritise his mental health.
His struggles were laid bare in the excellent Amazon Prime documentary ‘Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes‘ which was released last year and Stokes has further opened about his mental health in an appearance on Red Bull’s Mind Set Win podcast.
“I was almost putting emotions and feelings into a glass bottle,” Stokes said. “The glass bottle got too full and exploded and then everything got a bit too much for me at that time.
“Looking back it was a buildup of almost compressing emotions or feelings and not being comfortable in speaking about them to anybody. I was by myself in a hotel room where the team were staying, it was very early in the morning and things started happening that had never happened to me before.
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“It’s very hard to look back on that specific moment but what I do know and I’ll openly say is that I wasn’t very good at talking to people before that fateful day. Whereas I’m a lot better now at doing that and I’m a lot more open to speaking to the right people who I feel comfortable to speaking about.
“It’s not just as simple as wake up and crack on every single day. It’s not just your professional life that it can take hold of or your personal life. It’s definitely both.
“Some people feel it affects their personal life before whereas for me I felt like it was affecting my role as what I had to do as my job which was go out and play cricket. As important as the physical side of the sport, the mental side is huge.
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“You always need to be in the right frame of mind to go out there and perform under huge amounts of pressure, especially as you do at the international level. There’s not one moment where you’re not under pressure, you need to be in the right physical and mental place to hopefully do your job.”
In his documentary, Stokes revealed he was still taking anxiety medication and he also speaks regularly with a mental health professional. “The steps I took were to open up to people who are very close to me and then I went out and seeked help from a professional,” he added.
“The gentleman I ended up speaking to came as highly recommended, so I had a lot of long, really good face-to-face chats with him. It was great to be able to go in and speak to someone for a couple of hours and he actually got it.
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“He could understand it and then explain to me what was going on by listening to the things I was telling him because although it’s great being able to open up to people who are close to you just for them to listen, but it’s even better to be able to do the same thing with someone who can almost explain everything to you so you get an understanding of what’s going on.”
And now that he is England skipper, Stokes has made a point of encouraging his teammates to look after their own mental health. “Within our team, I’ve been very keen to make sure that we have performance psychologists and clinical psychologists available to everybody,” he explained.
“So when I’m away, I know that if I do ever need to go and speak to either of those two who are performance or clinical based, they’re available. And that’s not just for me, that’s for everybody else as well. It’s worked really, really well and it makes me just feel comfortable as well knowing that we’ve got those people on hand within the team now.”
To hear the full Ben Stokes interview on Red Bull’s Mind Set Win, head to redbull.com/se-en/podcast-shows/mind-set-win