Well, friends. I received the first round of the COVID-19 vaccination a few weeks ago. (In addition to actually having COVID at the beginning of November – double antibodies then? My lungs are doing weird stuff but at least my smell came back…mostly.) But seriously, it took me by surprise how quickly this happened. I had already accepted the fact that it would be at least 2 years before we had a vaccine, if that. I know things could still get much worse before they get better, but it got the wheels turning for me a little bit.
I started to imagine what it would feel like for life to turn back to normal. I thought about what I was doing before COVID and how often I would see my friends and make weekend plans and go out to brunch and travel to see family and go to the gym with no real risks other than to my own joints.
The problem is that it felt weird, even just imagining it. We talk a lot in sport psychology about utilizing “imagery” to see yourself complete skills and be successful, but you don’t need to be an athlete to utilize this skill. You could have never competed or performed at anything in your entire life and still be able to sit there and see your very favorite meal sitting on a plate in front of you, or be able to imagine the smell of fresh cut grass or rotten eggs (you’re welcome).
Try using it to imagine your life going back to the way it was – back to “normal.” Is that even a thing anymore? Do you feel cringey seeing yourself at a movie theater or a big sporting event or seeing live music in person? How about getting on an airplane or going to the DMV with the line all curled up inside the building instead of around the outside of the building?
Individuals with social anxiety may experience irrational anxiety, fear, self-consciousness and even embarrassment during every day social interactions. Social anxiety most definitely affected people before COVID-19, but it would be wild to think that what we have experienced during this pandemic did not provoke some additional anxiety around groups of people larger than, oh I don’t know, 10?
This is difficult for anyone to deal with, at any level. Given that most athletes, even in many individual sports, train in groups or teams – any new onset or worsened social anxiety may be difficult to navigate. If this is something you’re experiencing and it is affecting your day to day life, it might be helpful to talk with someone who can help you develop coping skills to manage this anxiety. In the meantime, here are a few tools you can try right away.
*NOTE* By “right away”, I mean like after you’ve had both doses of your vaccine and are safe to start easing into groups of other humans.
Breathing techniques! Seems simple, I know. But anxiety isn’t just in our thoughts, it can also cause changes in our bodies that lead to increased heart rate and shallow breathing. Sit with your back straight in a chair or against a wall, hold one hand on your stomach, and think about inflating your stomach like a balloon with each inhale, fully emptying it out with each exhale. There’s a number of breathing techniques you could try (if you’re really into this, look for a mindfulness app on your phone or mindful meditations on youtube, use the google machine to check out a wide variety of breathing techniques and see what works for you).
Exercise like jogging or yoga (perhaps in the morning or a few hours before your social/ team engagement). Tons of research supports this as an effective way to reduce anxiety. However, if your anxiety is coupled with depression this might be a bit more challenging to utilize and that’s okay.
Start small and work your way up. You don’t have to go straight from complete social isolation to a professional football game or a Drake concert. One step at a time, my friends. Maybe start with a few friends over at the house, and then a few friends or family members eating out at a restaurant, gradually increasing to bigger activities as you get more comfortable. Implement breathing techniques throughout this process.
Allow yourself to be in the moment. Shift your attention off of yourself and onto what is happening around you. (AKA “mindfulness”). If meditating isn’t your thing, not a problem. You don’t have to meditate to be mindful. You can start just by noting what is around you, anything that you can utilize your senses for. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? What can you touch and what does that feel like? Think about yourself as an observer and shift into that headspace. Be present and listen to what is going on around you.
Tell your negative thoughts what’s up. I could write an entire book on this process. But in the simplest form, you can write out all of your thoughts and worries about a situation, pick one, and reframe it. Flip a negative thought into a neutral or positive one. Pick another one, do the same thing. And so on and so forth until your hand is tired. There are certainly more technical ways to do this, but just getting started with this will help you develop more awareness about what thoughts are factual and what you can dismiss and reframe.
As the world slowly makes its way back to us, it’s okay to feel a little weird (really it’s always okay to feel a little weird). Pay attention to yourself, be kind to yourself, and take your time adjusting. Reach out if you need support. Rescue a dog for some extra love and affection and a reason to keep going outside (that’s what I did). And don’t stop washing your hands just because you got vaccinated. 🙃