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Brennan: Osaka's French Open withdrawal was avoidable
02:02 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.

CNN  — 

In a bold and unusual move, young phenom Naomi Osaka stunned the tennis world Monday by announcing her withdrawal from the French Open, citing mental health issues.

While other players have left major tournaments midstream, typically because of physical injury, this was different.

In an Instagram post, Osaka noted that she had suffered from depression and social anxiety since playing in a highly stressful US Open back in 2018 and that she goes through “huge waves of anxiety” before she speaks to the media.

Osaka’s response to her own anxiety was a profound exercise in self-care. It is a great lesson for us all, especially as the Covid-19 crisis continues to abate and we navigate heading back into the world.

As for Osaka, some of her colleagues have been gracious and supportive (see Serena Williams wanting to offer her a hug). Others said that tennis stars know well beforehand that conferences with reporters are a part of the professional tennis circuit, and Osaka should either have come prepared or bowed out beforehand.

If only depression and anxiety were so predictable and manageable. But they are not. In all likelihood, Osaka took to the court and the microphone, knowing she would suffer some degree of anxiety but was stunned that she couldn’t manage the situation as she had in the past.

Before her announcement she was dropping out, Naomi Osaka serves the ball to Romania's Patricia Maria Tig on Day 1 of the French Open in Paris on May 30.

We’ve all been there (or most of us have)

We’re not all professional athletes on the world stage, facing fans and journalists analyzing our every move. But many of us have probably been in a situation with a lot of eyes on us before the pandemic when we practiced our social skills more regularly.

I have been through my share of anxious episodes as an adult, culminating in me walking out of a talk I was delivering – on stress management techniques of all things. Not until I left the building did the panic attack subside.

Through my own therapy, I later learned that this reaction was related to anxiety in my family-of-origin that felt chaotic and unpredictable. Paradoxically, talking about managing stress triggered a stress response in me.

Perhaps you’ve frozen up in fear speaking publicly at school or work. Maybe you had to sweat out a high-pressure meeting where your performance held center stage.

Possibly you went through something difficult, a loss or significant life change, that left you anxious or depressed, maybe for the first time.

Or, as some of my clients report, a deep sadness, sense of dread, or profound fear hit you seemingly out of nowhere, leaving you shaken and awaiting the next episode with unfamiliar, uneasy trepidation.

For most of us, an initial bout of depression or anxiety is a shock to the system, and our fear of another episode can feel crippling and life-altering. Many of my clients fear they will never escape these internal, ongoing emotional threats.

It’s also important to note we are not helpless in the face of depression and anxiety, and this fear does not need to be our end game. We can take many steps to manage emotional difficulties, whether they are new or recurring.

Self-care as a critical step

In her Instagram post, Osaka blamed no one for what she’s going through. Instead, she cited self-care as her reason for walking away. This is a big deal, and exceptionally courageous, especially when we take into account that she did all of this before a worldwide audience.

Too often, we gut it out, with few tools to manage our anxiety or depression, in the name of strength or bravery. This can be emotionally taxing, and lead to a feeling akin to a breakdown.

In these situations, we are inclined toward isolation and a deeper depression. The symptoms worsen, often quite rapidly, and what might have been manageable now feels all-consuming.

Naomi Osaka holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup trophy after beating Jennifer Brady of the US to win their women's singles final match at the 2021 Australian Open.

Osaka did the right thing walking away.

From the outside, her withdrawal appears devastating, and it very well might be. Weighed against the emotional fallout of another depressive episode or enduring anxiety-inducing media tours, however, the self-care outweighs the potential benefits of staying in the game.

Many of us are facing a struggle right now as we calculate our comfort levels in being out and about with friends, family and others as more people get vaccinated. I find myself encouraging my clients to consider self-care as they make these decisions. We need to look at opting out in the name of self-care – not as an act of cowardice but as an important moment of emotional self-preservation.

For those reasons, I don’t regret walking out of that room years ago, and I’ll bet Osaka won’t regret leaving the French Open. None of us should feel badly when tending to our emotional well-being.

The benefits of a solid course of therapy

It’s important to note we can take several other steps to deal with anxiety and depression as well. A brief course of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, typically proves instrumental in managing symptoms. This is the most commonly used therapy for anxiety and depression and arguably the most effective.

Clients are taught to recognize the thinking that underlies the symptoms. Anxiety, for instance, tends to be a liar of proportion. Public speaking is a good example.

It is a potent fear, and many people experience some degree of anxiety when in public. But when we dig into the thinking that drives the fear, the worst-case scenarios we entertain in our minds tend to be far more catastrophic than anything that is likely to happen in reality.

Whether in a formal situation or even something more casual, approaching a lectern and speaking to a crowd can cause anxiety. Practicing in an empty place can help.

Bringing reason to our disproportionate, fearful thinking is vital to getting back in the game, whatever our game might be.

Exposure is the other key element of CBT that can help us gain control over our symptoms. Effectively, your therapist gradually exposes you to the feared stimulus, typically paired with deep breathing and other relaxation techniques.

Step one might be envisioning speaking to a small group of people. An intermediate step could involve stepping onto a stage in an empty auditorium. And a final step would involve delivering a talk to a group. As we gain more confidence, our symptoms subside. And we are able to tap these tools whenever they begin to reappear.

Medication can be right for some people

Sometimes we find that CBT alone is not sufficient to manage the anxious or depressive symptoms we suffer.

Psychiatry has come a long way in the past few decades in providing relief with limited side effects. And we now have some clever thinking involved in the management of these disorders.

For our public speaking example, nonaddictive beta-blockers are sometimes used to control a client’s heart rate, such that the body does not respond with alarm to a situation that might otherwise feel quite alarming.

I often turn to medical professionals when I learn that a client needs more than CBT-based interventions to control their symptoms. Please consult with your therapist or doctor if you are considering medication.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that we do not need to be permanent victims to our anxiety and depression. There are always steps we can take to either eliminate or ease our symptoms.

Decades ago, another young tennis phenom, Jennifer Capriati, left the game suddenly, ostensibly for mental health reasons. My hope for Naomi Osaka is that she emerges again soon.

For the rest of us, I hope we begin to step back out into the world again, at a pace that feels comfortable enough. And let’s keep our self-care front and center.