“Post-contest depression?” Yes, it’s real
You’re probably familiar with post-partum depression, a psychological condition some mothers suffer following childbirth. It arises because of a combination of hormonal changes, psychological adjustments to motherhood, and fatigue. In extreme cases, it’s driven women to murder their own babies.
I would never for one minute attempt to compare what bodybuilders go through following a competition to such tragedies, but the fact remains that we also suffer similar issues, and they’re quite real.
As such, they shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed, because depression and mental health are too important to ignore.
Why does post-contest depression happen?
Those of you who have competed will be very familiar with what I’m about to discuss, but let me paint a picture for everyone else. Contest prep is typically 16 weeks long.
For four solid months, every meal is carefully calculated and eaten at specific times. You eat the same exact foods at the same exact times. Every workout is laser-focused, and your motivation is through the roof.
You weight train and do your cardio like a machine—or rather, a man or a woman on a mission. Everything leads up to that one big day on the calendar coming up where you will stand onstage in a tiny posing suit to be judged.
You watch your body change and get leaner and more ripped as the days and weeks go by. It’s very satisfying to see the fat melt away to reveal deep, clear muscle separations and striations, and veins.
Everywhere you go, people comment on how good you look and often have an encouraging word or two for you. Yes, you will often be hungry and tired, and that’s no fun, but there is a purpose and a goal driving it all.
You’re getting into the best possible condition and dreaming of victory. And then it’s here: contest day! All those late nights lying awake craving pizza and all those very early mornings sweating away on your cardio when you wanted to still be in your warm bed … it seemed like this day would never arrive.
And then, poof! In the blink of an eye, it’s all over.
It doesn’t even matter if you won or lost, and I say this from experience. You still wake up the very next morning with a distraught feeling of “now what?”
Your days and nights were so rigidly scheduled with zero room for deviation that you were eagerly counting the days until prep was over. Now that it’s over, you find yourself missing it, even mourning it!
You couldn’t wait until you would finally be able, after months of deprivation and cravings, to be able to eat whatever you wanted. Suddenly you realize it really wasn’t the fact that you wanted those forbidden foods such as cookies, cake, pizza, donuts, and ice cream.
We always want what we can’t have, and that was the true appeal.
Perhaps the most psychologically devastating aspect that fuels the post-contest depression is the loss of lean condition. It may have taken you 16 weeks or more of strict dieting, restricting your calories and carbohydrates, and hundreds of hours slogging away on cardio to achieve that ripped and shredded physique that shone brightly under the stage lights on contest day.
All it takes to see an immediate diminishment in that look is a couple of meals with high-sodium foods such as Chinese food or pizza along with plenty of any type of fluid to cause massive water retention that will blur out all your deep cuts in mere hours.
Should you do what most men and women do and go full glutton mode in the days after a contest, you can also regain substantial amounts of body fat in record time. My personal best—or worst, rather—was going from 202 pounds on a Saturday for the contest and seeing 225 on the scale the next Thursday.
I’m not sure if I cried or not seeing that all my freaky cuts were completely gone, but I probably did.
Hormonal influences on depression
I don’t pretend for one minute to have any authority to speak on matters of endocrinology, but I do know this. For those of us who have competed with chemical assistance, you know that contest prep cycles feature more items in higher doses.
I’m talking easily twice as much PEDs as you would use in the off-season, and that’s being conservative. Having been on this staggering array of toxic drugs for months on end, anyone with a modicum of concern for his or her health ceases all PED intake once the show is over. These drugs take a while to clear your system, and in the meantime, you have a maelstrom of hormones still swirling around in your body.
For men, you will often experience a huge spike in estrogen, which will cause you to become extra emotional and often melancholy for no apparent reason. Your family and friends will be of no help as they have no idea what’s going on or why. I’m not qualified to offer medical advice, but it would stand to reason that employing things such as aromatase inhibitors (AIs) and a temporary course of antidepressants might be useful.
Always consult your physician and be brutally honest about which drugs you were using and in what amounts. Although very few doctors are experts in these matters, they should be able to refer you to the appropriate specialists. There’s no reason to suffer in silence. Now I would like to offer you some valid solutions to combat post-contest depression.
Don’t be a pig – reverse diet!
It sounds so simple, but it’s the hardest thing to do for most of us. After having no choice but to subsist on bland items such as chicken breast, whitefish, and egg whites for months, we don’t even want to see a clean meal again for some time. We might even have a whole cabinet fully stocked with all the junk food we couldn’t wait to inhale and a list of fast-food joints to hit.
For days, if not weeks, every meal is a cheat meal! But as we just mentioned, that’s how you destroy all that hard work in the blink of an eye. You will also feel physically ill and nauseated eating so much sugar, saturated fat, and various chemicals and preservatives after eating clean for so long.
The solution is to limit your junk and cheat meals to one or at most two a day, with the remainder of your meals being the same as your prep meals, albeit with larger carbohydrate portions if you want. It won’t be easy at all, but it’s the only way to prevent the horrible physical and psychological effects that you will experience should you throw discipline to the wind and pig out.
Take a vacation
One thing many competitors do is to schedule a vacation with their significant others or families right after a contest. Our obvious motivation here is to immediately give you other activities and things to look forward to so you aren’t sitting around feeling gloomy and lost. It’s also a great idea because contest prep is incredibly selfish.
For months, our entire focus is on our workouts, our cardio, and our meals. Partners and children are often neglected and ignored. Also, you’re generally mentally and physically drained from a prep, so it’s the ideal time to lounge around a pool, on a beach, or on the deck of a cruise ship and simply relax and do nothing.
If you do have a bit more energy, theme or amusement parks might be in order. You certainly weren’t able to enjoy a day at Disney World or Universal Studios when you had to worry about eating a chicken breast and a half cup of rice every two hours!
Get back to work!
Chances are that you slacked in productivity at your job, career, or business throughout the final weeks of contest preparation. Blame that on being hungry and exhausted much of the time.
You may have fallen behind in your duties or assignments. Now’s the time to make up for all of it. It may feel overwhelming trying to play catch-up, but the upside is that it will also force you to focus on something other than your own emotional crisis.
People who are extremely busy literally don’t have time to sit around feeling sorry for themselves and wallowing in misery. And if your financial situation or income was negatively affected by pouring all your time, energy, and attention into getting ready for a bodybuilding contest, that should be a tremendous motivation to put your nose to the grindstone and start replenishing your bank account.
Launch into your off or “improvement” season
Feeling as if you suddenly have no purpose or direction drives post-contest depression, so one remedy would be to shift your goals from dieting down to zero percent body fat (joking—this isn’t medically possible) to packing on size and improving lagging muscle groups.
You now have the nutritional resources available to facilitate muscle growth in the form of increased calories and carbohydrate portions, and more energy because you’re not doing as much cardio and probably sleeping much better too. The only caveat here is to manage your enthusiasm and only gradually return to heavier weights.
You might feel like Superman in the gym, but your body is still recovering from the trauma of contest prep. Still, your workouts should be a lot more fun now that you can eat more and get better pumps.
Post-contest depression is a genuine phenomenon and should be respected as such. Identifying its “symptoms” and understanding why it occurs won’t prevent it from happening, but with the suggestions I’ve made from my own experience dealing with it as well as knowing how many others have managed it, you can get past it successfully.
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