Dealing with anxiety in the time of Covid-19

Trevor Hall played lock for the Cats and Biarritz Olympique while a professional rugby player. The former player is now a registered counselling psychologist. He has experience working with individuals who are living with anxiety, depression, and other issues of adjustment and gave varsitycup.co.za insight in dealing with these during the time of Covid-19.

I’m sure a large number of us feel somewhat uneasy in these strange times. An experience of uncertainty is possibly at the core of many of our fears – physical, occupational, financial, and social uncertainty in the midst of a global pandemic. This uncertainty can lead to anxiety.

Let’s quickly discuss Anxiety. It can be a general feeling of unease that potentially comes from fears around uncertainty and the unknown. Unlike fear, which is an uncomfortable feeling brought on by a specific thing (e.g. a snake, heights, or a virus), the ‘thing’ that causes the feeling of anxiety is not always known. That’s one of the problems with anxiety, the fact that there is often not one specific worry that can be dealt with and fixed. Current anxiety connected to the lockdown situation could include many different fears that are potentially out of our hands, at least for now.

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As a practicing psychotherapist, I have both listened to and explored many versions of ‘Corona Anxiety’ through my clients. All versions have been valid and real. However, some observations from these sessions might also apply to sports performance anxiety. I want to shed light on current expected feelings of anxiety, but also look at the differences between general life anxieties, performance and achievement anxiety in sports.

I noticed in particular that a large number of my clients who lived with high levels of anxiety for an extended period of time before this lockdown period are – almost miraculously – enjoying nearly two weeks of feeling calm even though many real-time stressors exist. Of course, there could be many reasons why this might have happened – an easing off of work stress; getting to spend more time with their families; not having to worry about school; personality factors … and the list goes on. Asking clients why they think they’re enjoying a break from feelings of anxiety, many of them responded with statements like: “… everyone in the world is in this together … I feel like I don’t have to prove anything to anyone … I can just worry about me and not what so and so is doing!”

It turns out that the need to perform and to compete with others ‘out there’, together with the fear of failing ‘in public’, has been removed for a moment (except in the social media space of course). We’re all equally vulnerable and just trying to get by.

Trevor Hall during his playing days in France with Biarritz Olympique
Trevor Hall during his playing days in France, with Biarritz Olympique

Sports people are no different. Some might have experienced the same reduced levels of anxiety linked to no longer needing to perform and to achieve during the lockdown. Generally, during the season, you worry about being the best for your team, performing for the coaches, and not messing up on the field. Thoughts of “… if I mess up, my team or coach is going to be angry with me …” or “… I need to prove that I’m good enough …” or “… if I don’t win or perform well, my friends and family will be upset with me …” can result in uncomfortable and often painful feelings of anxiety.

Performance and achievement anxiety are almost always linked to some sort of social or relationship fear. The fear of letting people down and perhaps being ‘kicked out’ of the team, family, or ‘tribe’ for not doing one’s part can feel very real for some individuals. A person who experiences this type of anxiety can often ‘freeze’ on the sports field or favour an overly rigid playing tactic rather than allowing for spontaneity and creativity. In fact, sports people who experience high levels of performance and achievement anxiety and who try hard to avoid ‘messing up’, often bring about the very thing that they fear the most – failure.

Anxiety is something that every one of us will experience at some time in our lives. It is often considered to be our personal motivational alarm system. This alarm system alerts us to things we should potentially take care of, fix, explore, or do in order to live a more fulfilling and authentic life. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming and causes a person to worry excessively, avoid life, panic, lose sleep, change eating patterns, freeze during work tasks, have disturbing thoughts, and feel unnecessary guilt, we could say that the alarm system has become faulty!

A description of performance and achievement anxiety in sport is similar to the above description of general anxiety. Studies on athletes who participate at professional levels have shown that these individuals seem to accept anxiety as a motivational factor rather than something to avoid.

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However, some sports people’s alarm systems that are attuned to detecting challenges and possible future failure can become overly sensitive to the slightest misstep or ball-drop, as it were. The fear of failure, and the many reasons for it, can consume them to the point of avoiding the game they love, altogether. They no longer use the anxiety alarm as a motivating internal guide. Rather, the alarm system wails and beeps at the slightest trigger, creating many unnecessary and often illusionary fears that exist only in their mind. A dropped ball, in their mind, becomes a good enough reason to be ousted from the team, forever. He or she might think that they will not only lose the opportunity to play but also the safety of the team itself. More often than not this is not the case.

If you experience what I have described, don’t despair, there is hope! Overwhelming experiences of anxiety are treatable – even anxiety to do with issues of performance and achievement. Just talking to trusted family, friends or teammates about your experiences can alleviate the feelings of anxiety. There are also many proven mindfulness and meditation techniques to help express and contain some of these powerful feelings and to get your alarm system working for you again rather than against you. Finally, psychotherapy has proved very effective in helping to reduce feelings of anxiety. A trained professional is likely always a good person to see if you experience difficulties with painful feelings.

In summary, I urge you to take a moment during this lockdown – if only five minutes – and ask yourself if your ‘normal’ feelings of anxiety have increased or decreased during this time. Either way, ask yourself “why?”, and perhaps explore some of the reasons for the change. Quite often, once we can pinpoint a particular reason for feeling a certain way we can solve the problem by accepting it (if it’s out of our hands) or by putting a plan in place to take control of what it is

that we actually want for ourselves, authentically – even if the plan is occasionally to let go of the need to control. This lockdown time could be an opportunity to recalibrate your alarm system, ready to go. Good luck!

For more information on Trevor Hall, you can visit his website: https://www.trevorhall.co.za/