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For many sports fans, it's not just a game

Published On: Jan 27 2014 02:57:04 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 12 2014 02:35:14 PM CST
angry upset football sports fans

iStock / Yobro10

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When it comes to rooting for sports teams, getting caught up in the emotion of the game is normal, but during big games, some fans can go too far with obnoxious and emotionally unhealthy behavior. Sports fan have strong allegiances to teams, and when “their” team loses, they often project that loss to themselves.

“Being a fan is fine, but there is a line you can cross that makes it really unhealthy,” said Ken Yeager, PhD, a mental health expert in the department of psychiatry at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.  “Sometimes the pressures and tensions of life get added onto the emotions of games and then you have people overreacting.”

If you are one of these sports fanatics, or know someone who is, Yeager says it’s important to know the signs that you are getting too emotionally involved in a game, so you can take steps to avoid any behavior you might regret.

“Things like drinking alcohol, betting money on your favorite team to win and even who you watch the game with can ratchet up your stress levels and have an impact on your health,” said Yeager, who is clinical director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, which addresses the effects of psychological trauma and stress on patients and families as well as their impact on healthcare providers.

Studies have shown that sports fans have both a psychological and a physical response to what’s happening to their team during and after a game, said Yeager. What’s happening on the field or the court can affect their cortisol and testosterone levels, depending on the outcome of the game.

“The clues go all the way back to the ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanism,” said Yeager, who also is a licensed social worker and has provided counseling services to NFL football players for more than a decade. “So if you feel your heart begin to palpitate, you begin to sweat a little bit, you feel your breaths are shallow and racing; you’re getting a little too far into the game and a little too far away from the pleasure.”

Yeager offers these tips:

  • Don’t drink too much. Alcohol is a depressant, and if things don’t go well, it can make you feel even more agitated and upset. You can’t control the outcome of the game, but you can control your intake of alcohol.
  • Don’t bet on your team. Putting your hard-earned money on the line increases emotional intensity and makes a loss more painful.
  • Don't ignore the warning signs. Our bodies give us very strong signals when we are getting emotionally agitated, such as feeling nervous, sweating or feeling the need to lash out.  If you have these signs, particularly if you are in public or around others, take a break. Remove yourself from the environment momentarily and calm down.
  • Do control the volume of the TV. Overstimulation can quickly increase agitation. If things aren’t going well, turn your TV down or mute it. Reducing noise stimuli can calm you down and help divert your focus.
  • Do exercise on game day. Go to the gym before the game and work out.  Exercise reduces stress and can help you better cope if things don’t go well for your team.
  • Do surround yourself with good fans. If you are easily tempted to overreact, avoid those who do, too. Watch the game with others who share your interests but are more even minded and less temperamental.

“It’s very important to take care of one’s self and one’s emotion and one’s stress level all the time. Not just during game days. But certainly if you're going to a social outing about a game, make sure that your stress level is at the right level,” said Yeager.

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