How to Control Your World Cup Anxiety

“There’s a higher incidence of things like heart attacks in certain countries during their games.”

by Rajul Punjabi
Jul 10 2018, 3:51pm

When Ricardo Verdesoto, 29, was a kid growing up in Ecuador, his team struggled. When they finally qualified for the World Cup in 2002, he tells me, the entire country went seven flavors of buckwild. “It’s hard to understand this concept in a big city like New York, but in Ecuador, the entire country comes to a complete standstill when their team is playing in the World Cup,” Verdesoto, who now lives in Queens, says. “Restaurants and churches stay open but everything else kind of shuts down. It affects the way the people live during the duration of the tournament—the economy, the vibe of the whole country—which is pretty intense.”

World Cup is still life for Verdesoto, and not just when Ecuador is playing. Like many of us this month, he’s been watching religiously with friends and family. And the revolution hardly goes untelevised; Verdesoto has been been photographing fans who share his zest for the games all over the city.

Ricardo Verdesoto

While watching your team is exhilarating, it can be also a giant, steaming vat of anxiety. (Seriously, there’s even a meditation app specifically designed to help you calm TF down during a World Cup game.) This is because fans often see their sports team affiliation as a big part of their identity. When they win, we feel triumphant, and when they lose, we can actually feel like we’ve failed miserably at something, says Scott Goldman, an Ann Arbor- and Miami-based clinical and high performance psychologist who currently works with NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB teams all over the country. While he works with athletes themselves doing psychological programs to help with performance optimization, he knows how fans’ psyches work all too well.

Why do I feel so anxious while watching my team?

What lies at the heart of any anxious scenario is uncertainty, and the anticipation of underlying catastrophe. Goldman says that the emotion of anxiety uniquely once served as a means for preservation—it gave us an extra burst of energy when we were being hunted or hunting for ourselves. And while we’re not being hunted by animals anymore, we are watching with anticipation while our team is about to kick their third penalty shot. The anxiety of that can be just the right amount to feel good for some people, but it can too intense for others.

If getting riled up an unhealthy amount over a sports game seems silly, consider the fact that the World Cup is a special exception, kind of the like the Olympics. It doesn’t happen often, it takes years of work for your team to even qualify, and they can be ousted in a millisecond. One missed goal, and it feels like they’ve been robbed of four years of work. “Imagine the ‘sweat equity,’” Goldman tells me. “Imagine you have to put an investment into a bank or a stock. Every year you put all your money into this stock and then it all comes down to this one game. It’s almost like taking your entire retirement fund, betting on one stock, and hoping it’s not Enron.”

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So understandably, you might get worked up—even too worked up. “That anxiety response is only meant to last for about three minutes,” Goldman says. “Back to evolution: If you’re being chased by a lion and you don’t get away in three minutes, chances are you’re lunch.” He adds that when the system is pushed to activate for an extended period of time, things start to go wrong. “People can get ulcers or heart attacks,” he says. “If you look at the literature, there’s a higher incidence of things like heart attacks in certain countries during their games.”

Okay, say you’re not getting anxious during a game enough to have a damn heart attack. If you don’t have heart disease or another condition that puts you in a delicate spot, there’s really no reason to worry. Still, what’s the line between embracing those feelings of adrenaline—which Goldman encourages his players to do—and letting the anxiety get out of control? “It’s when a good thing turns bad, it’s like sugar or anything else. You have to become aware of that,” he says. In other words, when does the excitement start to feel kind shitty or scary? “That’s when things mutate to work against you.”

How do I control this anxiety?

In these cases, Goldman tells me, a fan can bring their anxiety level down by focusing on calming their body. Anxiety, compared to the other emotions, has a heavy physiological component to it: Our heart races, our muscles get tense, and so on. So doing anything to counter that—relaxation, taking deep, restorative breaths—can help. Goldman tells me you can also take a cognitive approach by talking yourself down. Put things in perspective by reminding yourself that if your team loses, you’re not a failure. The team is one aspect of your identity and your life is more complex than just this one moment.

Ricardo Verdesoto

Verdesoto tells me—and it’s punctuated by the inflection in his voice—that his emotional connection to the games is complex in itself. It sometimes feels like this is what's left that’s good in the world, with this dumpster-fire political climate and overall divisiveness permeating everything outside of sports. He describes a utopian scene at the last game he watched: Cold beer flowing, midday sun drenching the bar; people praying, crying, holding their breath, and holding each other.

“Complete strangers hugging and encouraging each other—that’s the most beautiful part of the game, finding that unity in wearing the same colors,” he says. If your body and mind start to panic a little during penalty shots, he knows it’s not unwarranted. It just means you’re about that life. Still, Goldman reminds us, whether you’re on the field or watching a ball fly through the air on a field a thousand miles away, a little deep breathing can’t hurt.

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