The New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals face off this week in the World Series — but it’s not just the players who are feeling the heat.
With each pitch and passing inning, fans experience the joy and the pain, too, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. “The more strongly we are engaged with a goal, the stronger the emotions we feel,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “Because we are such a social species, humans are able to engage goals both related to our self, as well as to extend that self to social groups to which we belong.”
According to Diane Robinson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at University of Florida Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health, becoming a fan of a particular sports team is sort of like adopting the whole group into your family.
“This is something we call ‘social identity theory,’” she tells Yahoo Health. “As humans, we’re all animals, and we like to belong to a pack. A sports team gives you an immediate identity. You can be alone in a city at a bar, and people will interact with you based on your team affiliation, which helps overcome feelings of isolation. It’s your tribe. And that’s powerful — you may experience the same neural responses to pain as if it was happening to your loved one.”
Sports give us the opportunity to indulge a broad range of positive and negative emotions, strong as they may be, in a safe environment. “There are few opportunities to experience joy and sadness on this scale, but sports allows it to happen,” Markman says.
How exactly does it all happen? Here, we break down all the emotions, along with how your brain and body is processing them.
Pleasure… as your team scores the first run.
As a social species, we’ve adopted our team as our own, which means: Whatever they feel, you’ll be feeling, too. “We experience emotions when our motivational system is engaged in some goal,” says Markman. “The more strongly we are engaged with the goal, the stronger the emotions we feel.” This includes the pleasure and excitement characteristic of good plays and earned runs.
If your team jumps out to a lead, expect a burst of dopamine — the “happy” chemical — as your brain’s reward centers are activated. “The brain’s pleasure pathway is the ventral striatum,” says Robinson. “If you feel a burst of giddiness, or the German term ‘schadenfreude’ — it’s the brain’s response to the abject pain of the other team. Those pleasure areas are activated at the pain of a rival.” According to Robinson, the more competitive the game, the greater rush of endorphins (the chemical responsible for that pain-masking euphoric feeling) you’ll receive after every big play.
Disappointment… as a hitter strikes out.
At the same time, sporting events are usually up-and-down affairs, so you can also experience the flipside of pleasure: disappointment. “It’s a neurometabolic cascading rollercoaster,” Robinson says. “This is all about your self-esteem. Their loss is your loss, and the pain areas of the brain light up.” These areas include the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. At the same time, says Robinson, “the neurons in the brain are putting you out on the field, stepping up to the plate like it’s happening to you.”
Your brain’s mirror neurons are engaged and, yes, your muscles might just be twitching to get in that batter’s box yourself. In a 2008 study, researchers found that muscle systems involved in shooting a basketball — or perhaps, swinging a bat — switched on while watching another perform that action. When a player was about to miss a shot, there was the greatest increase in “muscle evoked potentials” that indicate you’re about to participate in an action. Why the spike? You’re trying to correct the shooter’s form — or the hitter’s swing, in a World Series context — because you want to win. The more you know about the sport, the greater this micro-muscle engagement, according to the study. And the shifts are so small, they may not even be noticeable to the naked eye.
Rage… as the opposing team hits a home run (and you down another beer).
The moment your team’s momentum stalls when your opponent executes a great play, your autonomic nervous system is triggered. Cortisol levels rise, and adrenaline begins to pump through your system, according to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield. “This also incites the fight-or-flight response, where you are ready to stand with your team and fight for the win,” she tells Yahoo Health. Research conducted in 2014 shows testosterone rises during competition, as well, which can lead to those intense feelings of rage and aggression.
Meanwhile, you may have tipped back a couple beers at this point in the game, which will only make any sting worse. “Alcohol affects emotions and inhibitions,” says Robinson. “The part of the brain that says, ‘Calm down, don’t do that’ starts to shut down.” What you see next, she explains, is undiluted passion. “The frontal cortex, which allows us to complete complex social situations, is what separates us from the apes,” Robinson says. “The visceral parts of the brain start to take charge when you’ve consumed alcohol, and the reasoning and modulation of emotion is taken away.” So if you get into an argument with your friend after the ump makes a bad call? Blame the bad call and the booze.
Anxiety as the opponent loads the bases… then relief as your ace strikes out three in a row.
Notice how your anxiety levels shoot up when your team’s lead is threatened? According to Ivankovich, that’s because every true fan starts the game assuming their team will score a victory. “But at some point, if you begin to think otherwise, fear and anxiety can creep in and you can cycle rapidly through the entire emotional continuum.”
This is the autonomic nervous system at work, explains Robinson — where the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in tandem within. The sympathetic system responds as warning bells go off; cortisol rises during that nail-biting inning, your lungs expand, your heart pumps faster, and your body enters fight-or-flight. When your team finally sits down three batters without a run, the parasympathetic nervous system tells your body to cool off; your pupils will undilate and heart rate will stabilize as your body breathes a sigh of relief.
All game, you might notice these back-and-forth shifts. “When your team takes the field up a run in the bottom of the ninth, there are still many bad things that can happen,” Markman says. “Until the final out is recorded, there is anxiety.”
Crying… as your team finally wins (or loses).
You can think of crying as the ultimate energy release. Likely, your stress level has been inching up and up throughout the game — or even a whole season — as you encounter bad plays, close calls, and a back-and-forth lead. Markman says anticipatory emotions like hope and anxiety generally build in intensity as time passes. Robinson calls this the “climax of tension,” which is greatest during the most competitive games.
Ivankovich says that emotions are regulated in such a way that the brain is constantly trying to reach an equilibrium — and sometimes, you need a release of stress to do it. “Even tears of joy are a way of bringing a sense of balance back to the mind, especially when one is overwhelmed with emotion,” she explains. (In the early 1980s, biochemist William Frey discovered the body rids itself of problematic, stress-related chemicals through its tears.)
Those tears serve a psycho-social purpose, too. “When the goal is either achieved or not achieved in a game, at this point, the energy built up in this anticipation period is released,” Markman says, “and that can be accompanied by tears that communicate the extremity of the emotion to others.”
There’s a practical purpose for tears, potentially evolving as a signaling device to show others we’re experiencing an emotion. One psychological theory is that tears produced through strong emotions, in part, bond us through shared experience and empathy. So, you may cry at either a big victory or a big loss — either way, the other members of your tribe will likely gather around and feel all the feels right along with you.
Even in defeat, you can think of it as relationship-building.
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