Stress and sport | The link between eustress and watching sport

Gosia Bowling Gosia Bowling Mental Health National Lead
Over the years, watching England in major tournaments has had its fair share of ups and downs. From the euphoria of dramatic late winners to penalty shoot-out heartbreak, many of us have experienced an emotional rollercoaster when following the travails of the national team. But what impact does this have on the body, and could it have beneficial effects?

Gosia Bowling, Mental Health National Lead at Nuffield Health, the Official Health and Wellbeing Partner of the England Teams, explains how short-term stress, in the form of watching your team play, can have both emotional and physical health benefits.

The body’s stress response

When we become stressed, the body releases a cocktail of chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline, to help us respond rapidly to a threatening situation.

This is referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and in its purest form it prepares us for life-or-death situations.

The body prepares for real and imagined threat in the same way and doesn't differentiate between physical and mental threat. As it gears up the defence system, heart rate and breathing accelerate, and the body directs energy away from its usual functions, such as digestion or sleep.

This can be a vital reaction when faced with real emergencies, or as a response to short-term situations. So can a small amount of stress actually be good for us?

What is eustress?

Eustress, from the Greek 'eu' meaning 'good', literally means good stress.

Historically stress has been seen as a bad thing. It's true that health problems can develop when you experience chronic stress or distress; long-term high blood pressure causes damage to the cardiovascular system, and a sustained release of stress hormones has been linked to diabetes, obesity and depression.

However, short bouts of eustress aren’t damaging. It’s why the ‘flight-or-flight’ response evolved – it’s adaptive and helps us survive.

In the context of watching a football match, eustress from the perceived danger of conceding a goal, missing a penalty, and the excitement of scoring, only tends to last in the short term. It elevates our heart rate and gives us a brief boost of energy, excitement and motivation. As this is temporary, it's viewed as within our coping ability.

This differs from chronic stress, which is typically longer-term and feels unpleasant or outside of our sense of control. Think of the thrill that someone can get from riding a rollercoaster short term (eustress) compared to being forced to ride it for hours (distress).

The benefits of eustress

A study by Leeds University in 2018/2019 that tracked heart rate, blood pressure and mood of fans watching football confirms the positive impact of eustress – if your team wins.

The eustress from elevated heart rates was equivalent to a moderate cardiovascular workout, and watching your team win also resulted in reduced blood pressure.

Psychologically, a win was found to improve participants' mood for a period of 24 hours, however a loss resulted in an extended period of low mood. The study also found that these highs and lows may be what keeps many engaged in the beautiful game.

Win or lose, a study of 2000 sports fans by Better (a charitable social enterprise) found some benefits gained from watching sport in general:

  • Half of those surveyed said that watching sport helps them to socialise more with family and friends
  • Just under half (49%) said watching sport was good for their mental health
  • A third stated that watching sport inspired them to get up and be more active
  • Over a third (35%) said that the act of viewing sport makes them feel part of a community.

During a major tournament we benefit from a shared sense of connection and motivation. We experience ‘collective emotions’. Whether it be with our immediate friends and family who we watch the game with, or the mood of the nation as a whole, these moments provide us with an opportunity for improved relationships, emotional release and a sense of escapism.

One caveat here though. Research indicates that in order to benefit from eustress you need to have a good level of fitness before you watch a sporting event. It’s an obvious, but important distinction. Putting your body under any form of stress when it’s already in poor condition isn’t going to help.

In addition, difficulties in regulating the heightened level of emotion (and resulting behaviours) associated with major football tournaments can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of others.*

How to manage stress while watching the game

Here are a few simple things that can help:

1. Don’t drown your sorrows

Cut back on unhealthy habits. Alcohol and smoking may be seen as stress busting, but they actually stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, increasing the stress response and tipping you from eustress into distress

2. Get a move on

Getting active is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. Engage in physical activity pre- and post-match; even a brisk walk can help. Why not get up and move about at half time, stand for corners, and walk round the room for free kicks? Anything that makes you less sedentary will help keep you more 'eustressed' than distressed.

3. Accept there are things you can’t change

This is a hard one while watching your country play. Ultimately, what happens on the pitch is completely out of your hands. Accepting this is important when trying to understand how your stress levels can spike during the game.

Remember there is a difference between an imminent physical threat, and not seeing an outcome on the pitch you were hoping for. If your stress is spiking, ask yourself “What thoughts are going through my head right now?” Then ask, “Are any of these in my control?”

How eustress helps the players too

We often hear and talk about ‘big-match nerves’ and, from a player’s perspective, that's a very natural sensation. A small number of butterflies can have a positive impact on the body as it helps to create a heightened state, whereby the individual has greater energy, concentration and confidence.

Players may refer to this as ‘being in the zone’, and this is when they experience eustress. It’s a Goldilocks zone where players experience just enough stress, but not too much, to enter a state called 'flow'.

Players need to be in a state of eustress to attain flow. Too little stress and they are bored and underperform. Too much stress and they feel overwhelmed and ‘choke’.

Every athlete will have different coping mechanisms. In a tournament like this, stress can manifest itself in various ways; from expectations placed upon themselves, a sense of redemption for past performances, or the fear of failure.

What is particularly evident about the current England setup is the emphasis that is placed on mental fitness, as well as physical fitness, and giving the players the platform to write their own history and not be burdened by what’s happened in the past.

But whatever happens, fans and players should embrace eustress and fully enjoy the tournament.

*While following the national team should be a time to celebrate community and national pride, heightened stress and emotions around these moments has been linked to an increase in the number of domestic abuse cases. While the causes are complex, several studies have documented the link between excessive alcohol consumption and violent behaviour.

If you have been abused or are caring for someone who may be dealing with abuse, speak to one of our counselling experts.

Last updated Thursday 12 October 2023

First published on Friday 9 December 2022