With the spread of COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus, around the globe, numerous sports leagues have postponed, suspended or canceled tournaments, games and other events. As many athletes, coaches, sports fans and others process the reality of no sports for the next few months because of the spread of COVID-19, this unprecedented time can cause overwhelming fear, anxiety and stress.
ESPN spoke with Rebecca Colasanto, LCSW, the system director of behavioral health for Bristol Health, about how to manage and respond to the anxiety and stress that come with these rare times.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ESPN: What are some of the key things to remember when it comes to mental health and the unknowns of this pandemic?
Rebecca Colasanto: I think staying grounded and really being self-aware is very important for everyone. Focusing on things that we have control over and listening to whatever rules are being put in place for our own safety is important and not minimizing the risk but also not overreacting to the risk.
So is determining how to manage our own anxiety. How do we do that when anything is going on in the world that's upsetting? Sometimes limiting our immediate exposure can be helpful. Not to say someone should isolate from the news or the world news, but that we should be mindful of how much media exposure we're getting. Overexposure can really increase symptoms of anxiety. It's overwhelming.
ESPN: For a lot of professional, collegiate and youth athletes, this has been a really jarring time with the cancellation and postponement of sporting events and seasons. How can athletes try to maintain a good mental state during this time?
Colasanto: Being abruptly removed from anything that you were regularly doing in your life, whether it be your career as an athlete or if you work as a doctor or nurse, if anyone says, "You can't do this anymore, go home," it's a piece of your identity, and it's a piece of your nurturing routine. So for athletes of all levels, training, practices, games fill the majority of their time. These schedules offer consistency. For some, it's contentment. It's what they're used to. It helps them feel better because routines help people feel good. Not only do they have to encounter possibly the different emotions as if you were grieving the loss of a loved one, they're also having to create a schedule outside of what they're used to and from home.
Maintaining a good mental state really will have to prompt people to create a schedule outside of their usual. Again, people can remain physically active at home and continue to follow healthy eating and sleeping and all those other foundational self-care basics that they would need to if they were still in the game, so to speak.
ESPN: What are some techniques to dealing with this anxiety that comes with seasons ending, especially for high school or college seniors who might feel like these opportunities have been ripped away from them?
Colasanto: There needs to be an opportunity to consider what closure is. For each person, that could be different. But again, it's like something ending abruptly where there was no finish. There was no end. So how do we determine that this was the end for us and move forward and believe that we did not have control over this? It's common in times of acute stress to be sidelined from our self-care basics. Going back to finding routines can alleviate some of the emotional strain. How each person individually determines how they're going to identify closure is very unique.
Some people are still in shock. We don't know how each athlete is coping with loss or grieving the loss of their season. But understand that it's normal for them to have different feelings. Those different feelings can be throughout a day or a different feeling each day. Again, as anyone can research and look up the stages of grief, it's very easy to be angry. Like, "Who decided this?" It's very easy to be depressed. All of those feelings that we generally experience during the loss of a loved one can be true for the loss of this.
ESPN: What are some ways these athletes can find support from teammates, coaches and others right now?
Colasanto: In the technological age, we have so many more opportunities to stay connected, even when we're miles and miles away. Being connected to those people can help you to feel grounded and supported, even if the content is about who has worked out today. That distraction and that connectedness is really critical. These teammates, obviously, any individual competitor in a sport is dealing with things as well, but teams specifically spend so much time together that taking that away so completely is, again, another loss. Finding those ways where they can connect to each other helps tremendously.
ESPN: For a lot of sports fans, March Madness, the Masters, NBA playoffs, these are huge sources of joy in their lives. So with a break from sports, what are some ways that fans can deal with what we're calling the "coronavirus anxiety" or just finding joy away from their norm because this is such a break away from what the norm is?
Colasanto: There's something that happens in our routines. After the Super Bowl, the next Sunday, it's like there's no football, and you feel it. If that's become your routine and your stress reliever and your entertainment, you build your time and your schedule around these sporting events, and then it's gone before we anticipate ... it leaves people with feelings of loss. What provides joy, strength or hope to each person is different. Finding joy when your usual source is depleted requires a little bit of trial and error to find out what helps to distract people, to offer entertainment. Also, we use watching sports to alleviate stress. It completely distracts us from our lives.
Listen: On a special episode of Laughter Permitted, Julie Foudy talks to mental skills coach Dr. Colleen Hacker about how we can positively frame our mindsets, use laughter as the anecdote to stress and view social distancing as an opportunity.
ESPN: What about the guilt that a lot of sports fans are feeling right now, associated with feeling sad about seasons ending or postponed, and the reality that this affects so many people such as coaches, athletes and stadium workers? How can fans manage those guilty feelings?
Colasanto: We have to validate our own emotions and know that it's relative to our experience, so we don't have to absorb the entire picture. If it's, "I anticipated I would be spending every day watching basketball in March, and now I can't do that." And now, you can validate your own emotions, whether you're sad, disappointed, whether you're a little stressed out because that's usually been your stress alleviation, as it has been every other year of your life. You could just validate how you're feeling and be mindful that you can feel this way and you could find other ways to comfort yourself. What are other things that you engage in when it's not this time of year that you can focus on right now?
ESPN: What are some of the best ways to deal with stress or other symptoms that come with social distancing? How can one find some balance during this pandemic?
Colasanto: Some of it goes back to having a schedule and a routine that feels comfortable but also determining, are there other things you could put in place in your life? Taking a step toward practicing mindfulness can really help. A lot of people say, "What's mindfulness, and what can it do for me?" But there's a lot of free apps for mindfulness meditation where you don't have to rush to become an experienced mindfulness guru to practice a few minutes a day just to get focused and grounded to understand where your feelings are that day and to clear some of your head space for it. It really helps relieve anxiety.
ESPN: What's the best way for people who have never talked with a therapist to find the help they need during this time?
Colasanto: There are many platforms for therapy where you'll probably see the advertisements even on Instagram, "Connect with a therapist today online." A lot of those are pay out-of-pocket. But if you reach out to your insurance company, you can find someone who offers therapy on different platforms.
But we also don't want to forget that we can use our national crisis text and hotlines. They're free. They're 24 hours a day. At times, we don't need an hour's worth of talking to a trained professional. We might just have a few questions or want to talk to another human for a few minutes. Because let's think about people who don't have a lot of social supports in their life. They might just need to talk to another person.
ESPN: Anything else that you think our readers should know about navigating these new waters?
Colasanto: I don't know that many of us alive today have experienced anything quite like this. What we tend to have difficulty with is that every day, things are changing, so we're having to really be nimble in how we alter our lives. That can be very uncomfortable for people who like to know in advance how their day is going to go. We don't have that luxury. So thinking of other ways that we can nurture ourselves and provide self-care and nurturing routines can really be the difference of keeping ourselves feeling OK. If we're physically OK, taking care of our brain health is just as critical and just understanding that we might have different emotions as each day passes or as each new directive comes forward.
Everyone needs to build their emotional toolbox. If they haven't already, they need to start thinking not about how much toilet paper they have in the house but what are things that they do for themselves that help them to feel comfortable, that help them to feel better when they're not feeling so great emotionally.