Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Life As Art: Sports Grief, Roller Coasters, and Sarah Palin’s Speech

By Shelley H. Carson, Ph.D. in Life as Art
It's a dull ache in the throat and stomach, accompanied by a sudden sinking feeling. I started noticing these physical symptoms of melancholy last week but couldn't put my finger on the cause until I reread a Psychology Today blog on Sports Grief by colleague Steven Kotler that first appeared on June 25th. Then I realized that my symptoms coincided with the onset of the NFL season...and that my subclinical case of sports grief (I'm a diehard Patriots fan) had been rekindled by sights and sounds ("Are you ready for some football?") that in previous seasons used to ignite excited anticipation in me. And as if reliving the unimaginable (to Patriots fans and Vegas odds-makers) disaster that occurred in Super Bowl XLII weren't enough, now Patriots fans have another cause to grieve: our hero, the exalted Tom Brady, is out for the season!

My husband laughs at me because I take sports so seriously. But, psychologically, becoming emotionally involved in sports is serious and important business. I see it as a form of exposure therapy. Sports grief allows us to taste the physical and emotional changes that are associated with true grieving. It helps us rehearse for the inevitable personal losses that will come during our lives, so that we are better able to manage our emotions and continue to function in the face of real adversity. The thrill of victory in sports, on the other hand, helps strengthen the neural pathways of our brain's reward system, so that we are primed to experience joy in the future. All in all, I see sports fanaticism as a type of emotional regulation training.

Just as sports grief can train us to tolerate loss and sadness, other events can help us learn to tolerate fear and anxiety. Take roller coasters, for example. Many people who won't ride roller coasters do not abstain because they feel the ride is unsafe. Rather, they're afraid of feeling fear. Psychologists call this fear of fear anxiety sensitivity. But if you allow yourself to go ahead and ride the roller coaster, you learn that you can be gripped by fear, ride it out, and return to baseline none the worse. The next time you get on the ride (or face another fear-invoking event), you'll be less afraid of your own fear.

Another way to learn fear and anxiety tolerance is to witness other individuals successfully handling anxiety. We saw a great deal of this during the Summer Olympics, but perhaps the greatest recent example was Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. You didn't have to agree with her politics to understand that this woman was facing a do-or-die moment. Prior media coverage had placed incredible importance on her performance, and most reports suggested that, with no experience on the national (let alone the international) stage, she wasn't up to the task. I was already feeling embarrassed for her as she walked to the podium (I mean you'd have to go back to my ‘70's high school yearbook to see other examples of that hair-do). I felt my own pulse increasing as she began to talk. (It's so hard to watch when you expect someone fall on their face.) Somewhere in the middle of the speech, I realized that I was no longer feeling embarrassment but was feeling the thrill of victory...not because I agreed with the political ideology but because I was witnessing a heroic triumph over negative expectations. Palin's delivery of that speech modeled anxiety tolerance for all of us in the face a serious personal challenge.

So what do sports defeats, roller coasters, and Palin's speech have in common? We can use all of them to gain practice experiencing and coping with negative emotions. And next time your wife (or husband) complains that you're taking sports too seriously, reply that you're merely working on your emotional regulation skills.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | cna certification