It's football season — a time when no weekend (and let's be honest, certain work days) goes by when I'm not watching games at least some of the time. Even if I'm at a serious social commitment like a wedding, I will still find ways to sneak away and catch a few plays or highlights at a bar or through my phone. (I am not proud of this.)
Most weeks, I'll watch professional and collegiate football daily from Thursday through Monday.
And yes, I'm the type who gets really into the games when one of my favorite teams is playing. I become uncharacteristically vocal, screaming things (sometimes obscenities) that almost definitely annoy my neighbors and may even freak them out a little bit. I get nervous. I throw stuff. I do superstitious things I inherently know won't actually influence the game's outcome — but I do them anyway, just in case.
Sometimes I'm very happy with the results of a game, and other times I'm downright despondent and angry. And like pretty much any time I experience extreme emotion, those emotions manifest in my body. I'll admit that I have broken a sweat many-a-time during a close game, just like I do sometimes when I'm about to give a presentation or meet someone for a first date.
And considering the bars and living rooms packed with rowdy spectators and the stadiums filled to the brim with decked-out fans, it's clear I am not alone.
So why exactly does watching the sport illicit such intense sensations? Here are some of the things happening in our brain when tuning into a game that cause such strong reactions in our bodies.
MIRROR NEURONS MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE PART OF THE TEAM
One of my favorite things to mess with my friends about while we're watching football is how they seem to genuinely believe that as fans, they are one with the team — and habitually refer to their favorite teams as "We."
"We really need to pick it up on defense out there," or, "I can't believe we're going to pull this off!"
Yeah, Greg. Sure. You're really playing a large role in the outcome of this game.
But that doesn't mean it doesn't genuinely feel to them like they are.
According to Dr. David Ezell, clinical director and CEO of therapy provider Darien Wellness, adult humans have specialized neurons in their brains called mirror neurons that allow us to understand points of view outside of our own. These neurons enable us to put ourselves in another person's shoes and imagine what they are going through in a particular moment.
"These feelings are magnified when we are watching a football team or player we are fans of because we 'know' them," says Ezell. "When we see them on the field we are experiencing a portion of the feelings they are having because our mirror neurons are at work."
Thankfully, we can't actually feel the precise and likely painful sensation of what it must be like to get crushed on a kick return or sacked right when you're about to make a throw, but mirror neurons do allow us to experience a game to some degree as if we were actually there and participating in it.
CHEMICALS AFFECT YOUR OVERALL MOOD
If you've ever watched a game with any real level of interest, especially a particularly close or intense one, you've probably felt better following a win than you have felt in the wake of a loss.
This has something to do with neurotransmitters, chemicals that your brain produces to regulate your mood. Hormones can play a role, as well.
When your team loses, your brain produces cortisol, a hormone that your body releases when you're under stress.
According to Dr. Richard Shuster, clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping podcast, when your team wins or is playing well, your brain starts releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is directly involved in regulating the brain's reward and pleasure centers.
Conversely, when your team performs poorly or loses, your brain produces cortisol, a hormone made in your adrenal glands that your body releases when you're under stress.
"Worse, our brains may produce less serotonin, which can lead to increased anger and depression," Shuster says.
YOUR BODY REACTS TO THE BRAIN
I thought I was weird for sweating like an animal while sitting and watching a football game, but it turns out the response is actually fairly common. Whenever I find myself in a high-pressure scenario, I sweat, and that sweat is usually brought on by anxiety. The physical tends to follow the mental. So it makes sense that my sweat glands would have a similar reaction when I'm at the edge of my seat cheering on my team.
"When you experience anxiety before or during a game, it's not your imagination," says Michael Grabowski, Ph.D, professor of communication at Manhattan College who has written on perception, the brain and media. "A few studies have shown that sports fans can have intense anxiety before a big game, just like the players themselves. This includes both cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety, like butterflies in the stomach or other physical expressions of anxiety."
Watching football can increase your heart rate to levels similar to those associated with vigorous exercise.
Another thing that can happen to our brains when our teams win is that they are essentially thrown into something called an excitatory state, according to Shuster. "If your team wins on Monday Night Football on the final play, it is close to midnight and you are exhilarated," he says. "If it was Tuesday and you had to be awake for any other reason, most people would be exhausted."
This excitatory state comes from the hormone adrenaline, and that exhilaration often shows up in your body's behavior, according to Dr. Jason D. Hanks, director of anesthesia at NYC Surgical Associates.
"When we get stressed or nervous our brain again sends signals causing the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands," says Hanks. "The heart begins to beat faster, blood pressure goes up and blood gets diverted to the most important parts of your body, heart and muscles, as part of the fight-or-flight response. Other less important organs, like the digestive system, close off their blood supply leading to that 'butterfly' sensation you experience when you get nervous or anxious."
According to a recent study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, spectators of a professional hockey game saw significantly elevated heart rates, equivalent to the rates associated with vigorous exercise. It's certainly not a stretch to assume the same can happen during a football game, and Shuster confirms that yes, watching football can increase your heart rate to levels similar to those reached when working out.
This, in combination with increased stress, may not be a big deal to someone who is young and healthy, but Shuster warns that a fan who is older or significantly overweight may actually be at an increased risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack during a big game.
If you're worried about potential health issues or simply don't like the way being a football spectator sometimes makes you feel, take some time to put your fandom into perspective. You might find that like many of the things we worry about, it's not that big of a deal in the greater scheme of things, and isn't really worth getting worked up about.
"Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in the moment on game day," says Hanks. "Emotions can get escalated pretty quickly with a win or loss. In the end, we need to remember that sports are meant to be for entertainment purposes, as an outlet to take our minds off the stressors and struggles we have in the real world, not add to them."