By Wendy Kagan
Football enthusiasts can take note: Research over the years reveals some significant mental health benefits to being an invested fan. A 2003 review of the literature published in Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sports Psychology suggests that allying oneself with a group, such as a football or baseball team, can give a person a sense of belonging and social connection. There’s a bonding that takes place, and a feeling of shared purpose, that can have positive psychological ripple effects on deeply engaged fans.
“Many fans are motivated to root for a particular team because of that identity with a team, with other fans, and with the community,” says Adam Earnheardt, chairman of the communications department at Youngstown State University and co-author of Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium (Lexington
Books, 2013). When you’re aligned with a team, it’s hard to feel alienated or alone: Simply wearing a Seahawks jersey in Seattle can bring a thumb’s up or a high-five from someone you’ve never met before, just through that shared connection.
The positive effects of fandom can only increase if a beloved team wins. But what if they lose? Experts say that shared misery over a team’s losses can be yet another form of bonding—as long as the fan can keep his or her feelings in check. “I think it depends on how invested the fan is in the team,” says Earnheardt. “If it rises to the level of fanaticism, where the entire identity of the fan is wrapped up in the success or failure of the team, then the effects could be dramatic.” If a fan already suffers from a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, over-investing in a team can be a risky business. “We cheer on favorite teams for something Hans Selye called euphoric stress, or eustress,” explains Earnheardt. “Selye, a famous endocrinologist, described this as a kind of good or positive stress, as opposed to distress, or bad stress.” For example, the game’s come down to a 48-yard field goal with :03 seconds left on the clock, and you’re on the edge of your seat. Depending on how well-equipped you are to handle that kind of moment and keep it in perspective (it’s just a game, right?), good stress can turn into distress. So someone suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression might want to avoid those close, high-stress games, says Earnheardt. In the end, the benefits of fandom seem to outweigh the risks for most people. As this football season draws to a close, let yourself feel that team spirit—and the sense of community and human connection that come with it.