The Unavoidable Worry of the Unknown

Athletes Connected continues its resource stories for athletes coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. This story is about dealing with worry, stress and anxiety due to a postponed season.

By Rachel Amity, MSW, Athletes Connected Program Coordinator

Worry and stress have been seemingly unavoidable in recent months. For many of us, it may feel like there are considerably more unknowns than we are used to in the current coronavirus pandemic.

We may typically feel anxiety about an upcoming exam, a first date, a big game, or what we’re going to do after graduation.

when we worry excessively, or have chronic anxiety, we may start to over-contemplate worst case scenarios. When our worry is excessive or we find ourselves jumping to these conclusions, the worry can stop being useful.

These days, there are added stressors such as postponed seasons, financial impacts due to the pandemic, and stress from isolation and social distancing.

Though these situations are all different and may cause different levels of anxiety, they all have something in common: the outcomes are unknown. By nature, worry and anxiety are future-oriented states. Stress and worry can be useful by helping us prepare; they allow us to consider possible outcomes and consequences, can motivate us, and can signal that something doesn’t feel right.

Nevertheless, when we worry excessively, or have chronic anxiety, we may start to over-contemplate worst case scenarios. When our worry is excessive or we find ourselves jumping to these conclusions, the worry can stop being useful. Below are some questions to consider to help determine whether your worry is useful, or if it is only serving to increase anxiety levels.

Think of a situation that is causing you anxiety. Ask yourself:

  1. What is the best case scenario in this situation?
    1. Some of us are experts in identifying the worst case scenario, so much so that we can forget to consider what other possibilities are. Approach this from a perspective in which the best case scenario is equally as probable as the worst case scenario.
  2. What is the worst case scenario?
    1. This might be the easiest response to come up with. Our brains can be pretty good at this one, especially when we’re already anxious about the outcome. 
  3. What’s the most likely scenario? 
    1. In many cases, things fall somewhere between best and worst. For example, if you are nervous about an exam, the most likely scenario may be that you get a B-. Not an A (the best case), but also not a failing grade (the worst case). 

Now that you have considered each of these questions, let’s revisit the worst case scenario. In the event that this comes true, what would you do to cope with it?  What tools do you have to deal with this? Where or who do you go to for support? 

Have there been times in the past that things didn’t go as you hoped or planned? How did you manage those situations? 

Example scenarios:

Let’s consider the scenario that your season is postponed. Every person will react differently to the same situation. One person may approach that situation from this perspective:

Best case scenario:
My season is postponed for now. I’m upset, but I recognize my teammates and I won’t have to worry about traveling and getting infected. In the best case scenario, we will still get to spend time together as a team, socializing and staying in shape, and we still have hope of possibly playing in the spring instead of in the Fall. 

Worst case scenario:
My season is canceled, I’m devastated, and I feel like I have lost my sense of purpose on campus. I won’t be able to access training facilities and I won’t be able to see my teammates and/or my family as much as I want to. This cancellation also means I might not get a chance to compete at this level again.

Most likely:
My season is postponed, and I’ll be really sad, maybe even angry. It will be difficult for me to figure out how to spend all of my time and to be without the same training regimen and competitions, but I have been coping with the pandemic throughout the spring and summer so far, so I will be OK. I will also be able to dedicate more time to my classes this semester, and I’ll have more free time to explore other interests that I have not had time for because of sport. 

If the worst case does come true, I know I can talk to my athletic trainer and my strength and conditioning coach to help me come up with a plan to keep me as fit as I can in the circumstances. I also know I can talk to my family, friends, and roommates when I’m feeling stressed, especially because I’m pretty sure most of my teammates will feel similarly.

Another person may approach the same situation from this perspective:

Best case scenario:
My season is postponed and I’m relieved. I have been experiencing significant anxiety about competing this season, and honestly I feel more comfortable knowing I won’t be playing. Of course, I am still disappointed about missing a season, but I will be less stressed not competing than competing. I am also looking forward to being able to focus on academics more since this year is going to be tough academically.

Worst case scenario:
My season is canceled and I am relieved at first, but it ends up being harder than I think it will. In the worst case scenario, I worry that the relief will wear off and I will be very upset and end up out of shape by the time I need to compete again. I also worry about expressing my relief to teammates and coaches who I know want to play this season.

Most likely:
Chances are it will be a mix of both of these. I will probably feel relieved, but it will probably also be difficult and sad, especially since I know some of my teammates will be very upset about the season being postponed. My academics may benefit from more time, but it will be a transition since I’m not used to that sort of schedule – although I did get some practice with it in the spring and it turned out OK.

If the worst case does come true, I will rely on my teammates because I know that they will feel similarly. I know I can talk to my family and my athletic counselor about my concerns as well. I will also keep using the Calm app and listening to music in moments where I feel worried or upset.

As you can see from these two examples, there are common themes and feelings, but the exact best and worst case scenarios are noticeably different, as are each person’s coping skills and tools.

It’s important to remember that, even in the exact same situation, people will respond and react differently.

We can’t always control the situations causing us to worry, the outcomes, or how other people respond–in fact, not being in control is often why we’re worrying. But, we can control how we respond to situations. 

Additional Resources:

About the Author
Rachel Amity is the Athletes Connected program coordinator and a member of the U-M Athletic Counseling Team. Previously, she worked as the MSW intern with the athletic department. Rachel is originally from Corvallis, Oregon, where she grew up playing soccer, volleyball, and lacrosse. She graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, where she also worked as a student athletic trainer.