How to Protect Yourself from Spectator Stress


The professional football season kicked off a few weeks ago. Upsetting scandals aside, if you’re a gridiron fan, this is your favorite time of year.  Even if you’re not interested in touchdowns or quarterback sacks (and you have a lot of company there!), we all know the experience of being deeply attached spectators—and just how stressful that can be.

Think of watching the Olympics. Those of a certain age might remember Greg Louganis preparing for his final dive after hitting his head on the springboard. The dread and anticipation of that moment! Or maybe your heart beat fast and you stress-ate a big bag of licorice while watching your child sing in a school play, or seeing a dear friend try her hand at stand-up comedy or a respected colleague deliver a big presentation.

Being a passionate spectator, it turns out, means dealing with a kind of second-hand stress. Medical professionals at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) point out that when you respond strongly to external events—even when they’re fun and special—your sympathetic nervous response kicks on and your adrenaline kicks in. Too much of both and you’re looking at the negative health effects of chronic stress, such as heart disease, anxiety, and weight gain.

This doesn’t mean that you have to hide from anything exciting. On the contrary! Your life is meant for living, vicarious defeats and victories included. What you need to do, though, is incorporate a few relaxation and healthy lifestyle practices into game day, or comedy night, or Olympics week, or presentation meeting, so you can take care of yourself while living big. Here’s how.

Keep your body moving.
Any time you can, get out of your seat. Something as simple as standing up contracts the large muscles of your legs, supports metabolism, and improves your cholesterol, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels. Take a walk around the house, the stadium, the club, the conference room. Knock out a few push-ups, sit-ups, or squats if you’re in your living room, or skip rope for 30 seconds. If you’re not able to move about freely, try these simple chair stretches from the Mayo Clinic.

When you move even a little, you turn on your lymphatic system, a whole network of vessels that help remove waste from the blood. But lymph doesn’t get pumped through the system by the heart the way blood does. Rather, it gets moved through other ways, like muscle contractions. (Read more on how to revitalize through exercise.)

Call in your parasympathetic nervous system.
If your sympathetic nervous system is the crazy fan with the painted face and big foam pointy-finger, then your parasympathetic system is the unflappable umpire. It governs the relaxation response, slows the heart rate, and aids digestion. It keeps order on the field.

Deep slow breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. On an inhale, fill your lungs fully, hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way. Continue for 60 seconds. If that feels like too much to concentrate on, go for the deep-breathing hack: make yourself yawn.  (More deep breathing exercises.)

Eat like a champ.
Your heroes on the playing field or stage or conference room don’t eat the same foods as spectators (which usually amounts to junky stuff—chips, candy, soda, nachos). They couldn’t do that and still perform at the highest level. And you know how your body responds when you eat too much of these foods: lethargy, bloating, weight gain, and more. There is a luxury as a spectator, of course, to not have to be as stringent about diet. Then again…is that food doing you any favors? No.

The tough part is that salty and sugary foods are culturally part of being a spectator (have you ever seen a stadium selling bags of pumpkin seeds?), and we typically crave such foods when we’re under stress. So you need to be the captain of your own healthy food team. For example, UAB recommends using vegetables in place of chips for dips and substituting Greek yogurt for sour cream or cream cheese dips. You can also try chewing gum during anxious moments rather than downing snacks. Check out UAB’s collection of healthy recipes for spectators, tailgating or otherwise.

What makes watching things stressful—like taking in a performance, rooting for a friend, or even seeing a scary movie—is also what makes them. It’s all in how it’s framed. Enjoying the adventures and exploits of others is part of the human experience. Taking care of your own stress response and tending to its needs is what allows you to keep doing it, without any residual effects. Now, where is my foam finger?