5 tips for surviving a Sox collapse

A scientific guide to sports-fan pain management

The Red Sox open their 2013 season in New York Monday, and, as always, it’s a time of anticipation. The weather is finally changing, the red-white-and-blue bunting is blooming, and Jackie Bradley Jr.’s scintillating spring training has everyone thinking happily of the future.

But if the last few years are anything to go by, it’s likely that the optimism of spring will give way to crushing reality by August. It feels like a well worn pattern, an echo of the bad old days: They pull us in, raise our hopes, and then snuff them out.

But fear not, Sox fans: You’re not quite as helpless as you think. Our understanding of the way the mind copes with defeat, frustration, and stress has come a long way since the Buckner era. Watching sports, it turns out, activates a few particular processes in your brain—which means that neuroscience and psychology can offer some tips for maintaining good cheer no matter how bad a baseball season gets. Most experts don’t think 2013 will be the Sox’ finest season. If they’re right, here are a few science-approved ideas for keeping baseball mediocrity from turning into your own personal misery.

Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe

1. Lower your expectations

  • Tell everyone you know that this will definitely be the Blue Jays’ year. The brain, Cambridge neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz says, performs an awesome series of calculations about every win and loss, and the less expected a win, the greater the dopamine surge when you get it. And the opposite appears to be true, too: Disappointed hopes tap into some of our deepest emotions. The great psychologist B.F. Skinner found that even pigeons reacted with “frustration or rage” at not receiving an expected treat. Las Vegas has the Red Sox predicted win total at 79.5 games—take the under, and suddenly an 85-win season has the potential to feel great.

Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe

2. Meditate

  • A recent study out of Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University shows that regular meditation helps calm the amygdala, the brain’s tantrum-prone inner child, in moments of high emotion—even when you’re not actively meditating. Taking a few minutes a day to be mindful, attentive, and compassionate might allow you to have more control when, inevitably, Joel Hanrahan’s relief pitching stats this spring don’t turn out to be a fluke after all.

Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe

3. Make friends with Yankees fans

  • Or, if you can’t stomach that, make friends with people who have friends who are Yankees fans. Relationship psychologists say that forming bonds with other people extends your own personal identity in that direction. This appears to happen on a very literal level in the brain: You actually think that the other person is you, and their successes and failures are your own. Extending yourself even ever so slightly in the direction of the enemy has been shown to reduce out-group stereotyping and bias. Maybe it’ll make you more comfortable losing to pinstriped barbarians if you’ve started to feel that they’re really nice folk on the inside.

Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe

4. Take up baking

  • Psychology suggests that the more things you have that matter to you, the less the failure of any particular one matters to your self-esteem. Basically, the evil Lord Voldemort had it right in the Harry Potter books: The more pieces you split your soul into, the safer you are when any one of them gets hurt. If you spend August perfecting the ultimate pecan sticky bun—or whittling or fly-fishing or mastering the harmonica solo in “Dirty Water”—that deep personal investment will make it matter (somewhat) less when the Sox lose 20 games that month.

Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe

5. Pop a Tylenol

  • It’s well documented that physical pain is processed in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, among other places. And so, it appears, is emotional pain. When a Princeton researcher put Red Sox fans in the scanner and showed them Yankees in triumph, the ACC activated. Maybe there’s a pill for that. One University of Kentucky researcher found that acetaminophen—the active ingredient in Tylenol—effectively reduced the response of the ACC to what he calls ­“social pain.” So if you ignored steps 1 through 4, a drugstore painkiller might work just as well for heartbreak.

Eric Simons is the author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession” and “Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin’s South America.”
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