Top Tennis Player Naomi Osaka Puts a Needed and Timely Spotlight on Social Anxiety
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
The sports world was stunned recently when four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open for mental health reasons. Osaka revealed that she has battled depression and social anxiety, the latter of which was exacerbated by the media conferences and interviews that players are required to do when they compete in these types of tournaments. She said she felt “vulnerable and anxious” and that she decided for “self-care” to skip the post-match press conference. After being fined for doing so, and seeing the commotion this step caused, she decided to exit the tournament all together.
Osaka also said that she often wears headphones during tournaments to help her better manage her social anxiety. It turns out that she is not the only athlete who has shared how the rigors and demands of professional sports can impact a player’s mental health. Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, for example, has talked about his depression, and Kevin Love of the NBA has shared about having a panic attack during a game. In fact, some estimates are that more than a third of top athletes have been faced with some form of mental health issue, ranging from stress to eating disorders.
The spotlight that Osaka’s actions have put on social anxiety is both important and timely as we begin to return to some semblance of life as we knew it before the pandemic struck last year. While many people are excited about seeing friends and family again, along with heading back to social activities, there also are many who are equally anxious about leaving their pandemic “cocoons” and venturing back into the outside world. This may be especially the case for the 12 percent of Americans who have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.
This may also even be true for people who never had any type of social anxiety before but are now, suddenly and unexpectedly, finding it difficult to just “flip the switch” and head out of the house as if all is fine.
A study earlier this year revealed that the COVID-19 quarantines and shutdowns greatly increased social anxiety among those who participated in the study. Many people have literally forgotten how to be social while others have reported that interactions, such as conversations, that used to be second nature are now exhausting.
In fact, another study by the American Psychological Association found that about half of the people the organization surveyed reported feeling uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions once quarantine ended.
This is not terribly surprising since one consistent message over the past 15 months is that social interactions can be dangerous and that the best thing to do was to just stay at home. Doing so may have been difficult at first, but we eventually learned to be comfortable with staying inside, having groceries delivered and limiting our social interactions to telephone and video calls. We got used to it – some people, especially those who tend to be more introverted by nature, even found they preferred being in this “bubble” – and it became our new normal.
But in the same way it took time to learn this new behavior to protect our health, we cannot “unlearn” it all overnight. It will take some time to let go of the habits and behaviors that kept us safe. Until then, doing anything that had become “unsafe” and is now “safe” is bound to create some degree of anxiety. So, even though intellectually we may know that we don’t need to cross the street if someone is approaching us or that it’s okay to meet a friend at an outdoor café, the thought of doing so can send some people running right back into their home safety zones.Take It Step By Step.
The good news is that there are steps we can take to make it a little easier – or at least a little less uncomfortable – to get over the hurdles social anxiety may be putting in our way of fully returning to work and social situations that we put on hold during the pandemic. Some have to do with unlearning the behaviors we don’t need to keep doing anymore – or at least not as much – and finding ways that diet and nutrition can help us better manage and respond to anxiety.
The first thing to do is remember that social anxiety about venturing out after a year of isolation is both expected and normal, and that most people have it to some degree or another. The one thing that is important is to not avoid being social again. Doing so just keeps us “stuck” in our cocoon despite our desire to re-enter the world. Also keep in mind that everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to perceived risk. So, the best thing is to not compare yourself to others. Some people may be ready to go to the movies as soon as they open while you may want to limit yourself to outdoor gatherings. The key is to be patient with yourself and don’t try to do too much too soon.
Some things that you can consider once your area gets the “green light” to return to work, sporting events, concerts, restaurants and other social situations is to start with baby steps and then build from there. I would not suggest your first outing, for example, be with a large group where many of the people there would be strangers. What does make sense, though, is to start by getting out of the house every day for a walk. I personally take my hikes early in the morning when there are not a lot of people around, so there is very little risk of forced small talk (the weather is also better in the morning).
Once you’re comfortable with being out-and-about, set some challenges for yourself. For example, if you have had all your groceries delivered for a year, make a trip to the supermarket. You can go at an off hour and do whatever makes you feel more comfortable being inside the store. In addition to giving you an opportunity to get used to the social aspects of shopping, you will also get some exercise walking up and down the aisles (bonus points if you can walk to your supermarket).
Once your area moves into less restrictive guidelines, you may find yourself inundated with invitations from friends to come over for dinner, go see a movie or head to a ball game. If you start to feel overwhelmed with making social commitments, it’s okay to limit yourself to as many as you feel comfortable doing. Another trick that works for some people is to give yourself permission to leave a social situation if you start to feel too uncomfortable. You can stay longer the next time!
If you do find yourself feeling anxious – either anticipating doing something or while you are doing it – there are a few things you can do to help relax. One of the easiest things to do is to just take some deep breaths while you think about your “happy place.” For many people, taking this little mental break can work wonders. You can also break the anxiety runaway train by practicing mindfulness, which will help keep you focused on what is happening right now rather than on what could happen in the future. Remember that most of what we get anxious about never happens.
The Role of Nutrition in Managing Social Anxiety
How well we react or respond to stressful and anxious situations depends not only on what we do but also on our diet. As with everything else about our lives, what and how we eat can play an important role in reducing social anxiety. Here are some suggestions:
- Try to eat smaller meals throughout the day rather than two or three larger ones. I personally eat between five and six times a day. Eating this way helps avoid periods of lower blood glucose, which can make you edgy, anxious and irritable.
- Avoid processed foods as much as you can and instead focus on whole grains, fruits and vegetables since these types of complex carbohydrates may help you feel calmer by reducing highs and lows in your serotonin levels. Also avoid refined and added sugars.
- Eliminate or limit caffeine from your diet. While caffeine can provide a quick pick-me-up, it also can make you more tense and increase your anxiety levels. Try some decaffeinated green tea, for instance, which has the added benefit of providing a variety of health benefits.
- Watch your alcohol intake. While it may be tempting to have a drink to ease social anxiety, in the long run it will boomerang against you since it can make any depression you may have worse (depression and anxiety often go together). It also is full of lots of empty calories.
- Get enough magnesium. Studies with mice have shown that diets low in magnesium increased anxiety-related behaviors. There are a variety of delicious and healthy foods that are rich in magnesium. Leafy green vegetables (like spinach,) legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains contain magnesium.
- Get enough zinc. Having adequate zinc has been linked to lowered anxiety.
- Get your probiotics. A study found a link between a diet rich in probiotic foods and lower social anxiety.
- Don’t forget B vitamins. There are a variety of delicious, healthy foods like whole grains, legumes and green leafy vegetables that contain B vitamins (such as folate). Eat an array of these foods to calm your nerves.
You also may want to work with a qualified health care professional to determine whether you are deficient in any critical nutrients. For example, a magnesium deficiency may contribute to anxiety.
Enjoy Your Healthy Life!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or another competent healthcare practitioner to get specific medical advice for your situation.
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