Selective Mutism and Sports
One topic that I think isn’t really discussed very much when it comes to SM is sports. Sports have helped a lot of kids who have SM to break through. I have met others who have cited things like soccer or ice skating as the impetus that helped them to start communicating verbally. When I used to play tennis, I’d notice that when I was playing, it was easier for me to talk once the tank was empty and I was tired out. Well, why is that? Let’s look at why sports can be such a positive influence.
I’m not a scientist or anything. But over the years I’ve come up with some observations. When someone with severe anxiety is faced with a situation such as meeting new people, they experience a physiological response. Sweating, heart beating faster, and a massive spike in adrenaline. All of this is in reaction to the psychological fight or flight instinct. When faced with something that is perceived as ‘dangerous,’ the body naturally primes itself to either fight or run away.
On the most basic and primal level, the threat might be a lion, for example. In that case, the rush of adrenaline, cortisol secretion (which helps give you a boost of energy through sugar reserves), and increased heart rate would actually help you to run away. And after you run away, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol naturally decrease.
However, in modern times, the perceived threat isn’t always something we can run away from. A stressful job, presentations, family problems, and in the case of SM, talking. If, say, you’re in class or at work, and the teacher calls on you or your boss comes to talk to you, immediately your stress response activates. But if you just ran away, people would think you were weird and would potentially cause you more stress down the road.
This is where sports provides a natural outlet for that. Whereas you can’t run away in a classroom, it’s pretty much expected that you run in most sports. Some sports don’t have you running quite as much; for example, baseball where you’re sitting a lot of the time. Soccer or basketball would be good examples where you’re running for extended periods of time. And so when you are playing, the anxiety has an outlet. All the stress hormones that you’ve built up throughout the day has a way out. This is why a lot of people describe their particular sport as therapeutic. It’s relieving and cathartic because it’s helping them to get rid of the low levels of cortisol that they’ve accumulated through their day through a stressful job, which extends throughout society, not just a problem with SM.
One caveat to this would be if the sport itself is actually causing added anxiety. An example of this would be if you’re not particularly good at a sport and you’re forced to play it, which is a very common occurrence in P.E. classes everywhere. That would be a case where the pressure to talk is compounded by the pressure not to fall on your face or look dumb exercising, which is the opposite of what we want.
The adrenaline boost will also help you do better at the sport for obvious reasons. Instead of being a hindrance and causing a freeze response, it’s immediately being redirected into a physical activity, which will naturally help lower the adrenaline levels.
A side effect of playing a sport is that it shifts your focus onto the activity that you’re doing. Like if you had SM, and I was standing directly in front of you saying, “talk,” that would force you inside your head and you wouldn’t be able to do it. But if all your attention is on doing something you love, like playing soccer, or even playing music, dancing, or playing a video game, it’s going to be easier for you to speak within that context because you’re not letting your mind draw energy inward. You’re essentially distracting your own brain into not noticing that it’s time to become anxious.
The important thing here is to not ‘stop’ as soon as you are able to talk within one environment. It could become a crutch where you can only talk within your comfort zone. I’ll talk about that another time because there’s actually a lot more to it than that.
So how can you use all this information? What are the practical applications of this? If you’re reading this, and you have a child with SM, a positive influence on his or her life would be to join a sports team for a sport he or she enjoys. That can be through the school or a local little league. Even if he or she doesn’t end up talking, it will help build the confidence and establish the reference experience to draw back on later. Again, make sure the sport is one he or she enjoys.
If you’re someone who’s been struggling with SM (or even if you aren’t), you could look for opportunities to exercise with groups of people. For example, every weekend there’s a group of people who gather at the park near where I live to play soccer, and it’s very common to just join in without the need to say very much. If you’re not really sports inclined, you could take a dance class, or even just take walks around the neighborhood and push yourself to just say hi to someone. The thing is, even if you don’t just magically start talking, it’s going to impact your life positively. And that’s ultimately what you want – to be taking steps forward even if they’re really small steps, and just have fun doing it.