The Euros are a fantastic spectacle. But are they causing you stress and anxiety, too?
The fact that a record-breaking 69,000 people of all generations packed Old Trafford to cheer England’s victory over Austria in the first match of the UEFA Women’s Euros 2022 shows the growth in interest in the women’s game.
It’s undoubtedly a great thing that more women are playing and watching football. The final on 31 July will be watched across the globe by millions less than three decades after SirAlex Ferguson, whose team played at the very same ground, refused a female physiotherapist’s work placement application because football was considered a ‘male sport’.
But, just like many things we grow to care about in life, following elite-level sport carries with it the lingering threat of anxiety, stress and panic.
‘What if England loses?’
‘What if they don’t live up to expectations?’
‘What if the players have to deal with yet another England penalty shootout exit?’
Though these are all genuine concerns, they can place heavy stress and anxiety on the shoulders of fans and sports people alike. So, what drives these emotional reactions — and how can we moderate them to ensure we still enjoy our favourite sports?
Physical reactions to emotional stress
It’s not just us spectators who struggle with difficult emotions during high-pressure moments.
Serena Williams has been vocal about her struggles with depression; so too has the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps. The most recent Olympics was dominated by coverage ofSimone Biles’ struggles. And Naomi Osaka, who ranked second in the world in tennis singles at the time, made headlines when she withdrew from the FrenchOpen, citing her struggles with anxiety and depression.
There is a difference, of course. The struggles of these experienced athletes are more reflective of the impact of working every day for years in a high-pressure, public-facing industry that takes no prisoners.
Instead, when we watch elite sports, we’re likely to struggle with context-dependent anxiety and stress. This type of anxiety is time-limited, like getting very nervous before an important exam. Moreover, we’re likely to go about our usual activities the next day, regardless of the result.
This type of anxiety and stress is generally manageable, and we shouldn’t think of it as the same a shaving a mental health problem that needs additional support. Annoyingly, we use similar words — anxiety, stress and panic — for both the clinical issue and the common, everyday occurrence. However, they’re very different.
Still, the physical reactions to stress and panic can feel just as intense when it’s happening. Your heart races, your palms get sweaty… you might even start to shake a little with the intensity of your body’s response. In more severe cases, you might even begin to worry that you’re about to have a heart attack.
So, how do we best respond to stress when watching sport or living our day-to-day and learn to start enjoying our brain and body’s response to such intense anticipation?
Remember, you’re only human
Firstly, remind yourself that feeling stress and anxiety is a natural part of being a human. It’s normal to get anxious. If you try to stifle it, it’s likely to get worse.
In many ways, anxiety is a secret to humanity’s success. Unlike being depressed, stress and anxiety prepare us to focus, move, plan or act. Up to a point, being stressed raises performance levels (until, of course, it gets too much and starts to affect performance negatively).
Just remember: if you’re generally in good health, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re having a heart attack. Hopefully, you’ll start feeling much better after a few deep breaths and some space to think.
Link stress to excitement
The last thing we should do when anxious and stressed is to avoid the very thing that makes us nervous.Ideally, you learn ways to stay with your anxiety and, possibly, utilise it for your benefit.
Being stressed can often feel very similar to excitement. Think about it: when you’re excited, what happens? Your heart starts to beat faster. You might begin to sweat and tense as if ready to move at a moment’s notice. These are very similar to the physical aspects of anxiety, which is unfortunately also accompanied by horrible worries and intrusive thoughts.
Redirect your physical reaction
So, you’ve realised your feelings of anxiety are closely tied with anticipation during a big game. Is it possible to channel your body’s response into something more enjoyable? Loosen your tense palms a little. Breathe a little deeper and slower. Can you connect more to the excited part of you than the anxious part for a little while? (That’s a great trick for public speaking, by the way.)
If that’s a struggle, you candirect your physical energy elsewhere; do some push-ups at halftime, for example. Throughout the game, you can shout, laugh and sing. Embrace that energy!
Ground yourself in time
If you’re struggling with stress during the match, focus on specifics. What minute are we in? What’s the pattern of play? Who’s the best substitution for England to get back in this game they’re losing?
Doing so reduces your uneasiness by bringing you into the present. After all, anxiety is fundamentally concerned with the future. Try to combine that focus on specifics with paying attention to your body. At a break in play — a throw-in, a corner —check in with your body and remind yourself to breathe and relax your shoulders.
Seek professional support
Of course, if your anxiety is more generalised and your stress levels don’t return to normal within a few days, you should seek professional medical help.
For the majority of people, that’s unlikely, though. So, practice embracing your anxiety and stress, and work on channelling it productively. And, most importantly, enjoy the game!
Are you struggling to manage feelings of stress and anxiety? Check out our introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course, and let us know if you find it helpful!