Turn off your television, throw out your radio and donate your Super Bowl spread to a food bank, because according to a new study, dedicated sports fans endure such extreme levels of physical stress while watching their team compete — and even more so while watching their team lose, big time — that they could have a heart attack.
The researchers came to this conclusion after testing saliva from Brazilian fans during their historic, demoralizing, abominable, heartbreaking, 7-1 loss to Germany during the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, which revealed that supporters — particularly those who who freaking love their team, dude — experienced serious spikes of the stress hormone cortisol, which can constrict blood vessels, raise blood pressure and damage an already sluggish heart. This could help explain why, in previous studies, scientists found a link between the World Cup and substantially increased incidents of cardiac emergencies (times 2.66, compared to the control period).
While these studies focus on the World Cup, surely American football fans have the capacity to become just as worked up for the Super Bowl, putting them and their sodium-soaked hearts at a similar level of risk. To help explain why fans become so attached to their teams in the first place, Frank Smoll, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who researches the psychological effects of competition on children and adolescents, points me toward a psychological phenomenon known as BIRGing, or “basking in reflected glory.”
Essentially, BIRGing is when someone associates their own success with the success of someone or something else, like a sports team, which is actually believed to be a useful tool for improving our self-esteem under normal circumstances. But when someone takes BIRGing too far, as we often see with football fans, they can become delusional and forget that they have absolutely nothing to do with how their team performs, which could obviously result in extremely high emotions and stress. In other words, if a fan takes BIRGing to the max, they might be inclined, at least subconsciously, to blame themselves for the failures of their team, resulting in a huge blow to their own self-esteem.
That said, realistically, unless you have a history of heart problems, chances are that getting too hyped up during the Super Bowl will be more dangerous for your TV screen than your heart health. Still, for your sake and the sake of those around you, I asked psychologist and stress management coach Obehi Alofoje, as well as psychologist Kate Hays, founder of The Performing Edge, a consulting practice devoted to sport and performance psychology, for some advice on keeping cool during the big game. For starters, Alofoje bluntly warns, “If you’ve been having chest pains or increased anxiety recently, then please go see your general physician.” Yeah, seriously, dude. If you feel generally okay, though, here are some other calming tips.
“We tend to hold our breath for a much longer period when we anticipate something happening, like an impending goal, so remember to take a very deep breath after the tension has passed,” says Alofoje (a tactic that Hays reiterates, pointing specifically to diaphragmatic breathing). “This should help regulate your breathing again and move that much-needed oxygen to your brain. Try breathing in for a count of seven and out for a count of 11.”
Both Alofoje and Hays also recommend easing up on the booze — which, good luck — and taking opportunities to celebrate when your team does a good job. “I know that we can barely avoid alcohol during sporting events, but alcohol increases our heart rate, so it helps to at least reduce this by alternating alcoholic beverages with a soft drink where possible,” she says (or better yet, water). “When your team scores that goal or touchdown, cheer and hug your friends and fellow fans a little bit longer than usual. That will help reduce your stress levels for a little bit, too.”
More generally, Hays emphasizes the importance of taking small moments to look inward and care for yourself during the course of the game, which can help you escape the forceful grips of extreme fandom and the emotions that come with it. “Things like eating some food that’s not totally laced with fat, salt and carbohydrates, getting up and moving — not just sitting there and staring at the television — taking some breaks,” she says. “I know part of what’s so exciting are the commercials themselves, so figure out when to take a break.” Checking in with yourself and your emotions periodically, Hays says, can help you recognize when the heat of the game is getting to your head and how you can moderate that.
Most of all, though, Alofoje says, “Remember, it’s only a game: Have fun, and even if your team loses, just ‘bless and release.’ There’s always next time.”
…but not if you slammed your TV and can’t afford a new one.