How to Cope with ‘Fanxiety’ and Game Day Jitters

A clinical psychiatrist shares how fans can help manage the stress and anxiety often associated with high-stakes sporting events.

People cheering on a football game.

Major sporting events can feel like unofficial holidays, giving people a reason to gather, eat, and celebrate. But for superfans of one of the teams in a big matchup, the day is much more serious — and stressful.

“If you’re excited about the game, especially if you’ve got a rooting interest, you might be at risk of getting too overwrought,” says Dr. Janna Gordon-Elliott, a clinical psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Dr. Gordon-Elliott spoke with Health Matters about managing the roller coaster of emotions often associated with being a sports fan – fanxiety.

Dr. Janna Gordon Elliott.

Dr. Janna Gordon-Elliott


Have a Healthy Perspective of Gameday Rituals
Superfans may have superstitions or adhere to their own game day rituals, such as wearing lucky socks or a favorite jersey. So if your team is playing in a big game, embrace the power of your rituals, while avoiding their pitfalls. “A routine can help you feel more prepared and in the zone, and give you a sense that you’re doing something to help out your team and the outcome of the game,” says Dr. Gordon-Elliott. “But if your rituals become so rigid that they distract you from spontaneous experiences during the day, the negatives could outweigh the positives.”

Embrace the Butterflies
That nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach doesn’t have to be seen as a bad thing, says Dr. Gordon-Elliott. “We so often label nervous energy as something negative, when in reality it might mean you’re excited, or getting yourself ready,” she says. “In fact, you might be experiencing some stress, but a little bit of stress is a good thing — increasing our alertness and focus — especially if we choose to tolerate it in anticipation of our team winning.”

Burn Some Energy
If you’re worried about feeling overstimulated, try to get in a workout or stay physically active beforehand. “After we exercise, there is activation of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, making it easier for us to relax,” Dr. Gordon-Elliott says. That sense of calm can linger, she adds, and can help if you’re feeling antsy. Even during the game, “getting up and stretching, walking upstairs, and moving your arms will certainly burn off some steam and release some endorphins.”


Focus on the Game, Not Your Phone
In this age of texting, apps, and instant commentary, it’s hard not to be on a device during the game. But Dr. Gordon-Elliott recommends putting the phone down and enjoying the moment. “It’s going to be much healthier for you,” she says. “You’re already sitting there, probably in front of a huge screen, with others around you, so why would you need to add more stimulation to that? Scrolling on the phone creates excessive anticipation and will also distract you from what’s going on in the moment.”

Let Go of What You Can’t Control
Your team is down big at halftime. It’s natural to be nervous and on edge. This is a good time to remind yourself that “what the athletes do is completely outside of your control,” says Dr. Gordon-Elliott. “Learn how to focus on the stuff that you can control and let go of the things that you can’t.” Channel your jitters by either staying present in the room with other people or grab some fresh air during a commercial break to calm your nerves.

Set Limits For Yourself
If you’re attending an event filled with food and drinks, be mindful of how much you plan to indulge. “Go in with a plan about how much you’re going to drink,” she says. “Especially if you’re feeling a little bit nervous, drinking might initially make you feel a little calmer, but we know that over time drinking can intensify our emotions and shift them to a more negative place.” Too much alcohol can also put you more at risk for impulsive behavior like betting too much, among other hasty decisions.


Take Time to Decompress
Whether your team has won or lost, it’s important to bring down your nervous system once the game is over. That will look different to everyone, but meditation, reading a book, or doing some 4-7-8 breathing exercises can help you achieve calm after a stressful day. “In general, following a bedtime ritual promotes more restorative sleep,” says Dr. Gordon-Elliott. “Turn your screens down and do a calming activity or talk to a loved one before heading to bed.”

Find Solidarity
Win or lose, the act of cheering for a sports team can reinforce one’s sense of community. If your team wins, “Give yourself a chance to celebrate with others,” says Dr. Gordon-Elliott. “That said, if your team loses, carve out time to mourn the experience. Acknowledge your sadness, but know that there’s a community of fans who are equally sad. Remember, there’s always next year.”

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