The patient spent the entire session in psychologist Kimberly Lannon’s office pacing. “There was a lot of heavy breathing and sighing,” she said. “He told me he wasn’t eating, and he was sleeping poorly.”
The problem? Why, the Patriots of course. They’re in another Super Bowl, and the patient is tensing for another heart-in-throat, down-to-the-wire ending.
Despite what the rest of the nation may think — what with our regular appearances in the Super Bowl, the five rings, the dynasty and all — being a Patriots fan is hard on the body and mind (there is actual science on this). And not only that, but Pats fans have it harder than fans of other NFL teams (there is no actual science on this).
If people would only understand how painful it would be for us to lose the Super Bowl when a sixth victory is our birthright (and a seventh for that matter, and so on). If only others would let themselves imagine what it’s like to have a heart attack seemingly every key game, until the team — inevitably — pulls out a victory.
If outsiders would only listen to Lannon, a Bedford-based clinical psychologist. “This is a heavy week for stress,” she said.
It’s little consolation that the one person most responsible for the anxious state of fandom himself remains (at least publicly) unperturbed. “The coaches always talk to us about not riding the emotional roller coaster,” Tom Brady said at the packed Super Bowl send-off rally at Gillette on Sunday..
That’s nice for him, but the rest of Patriots Nation still has white knuckles from that roller coaster of an ending against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. Brady and coach Bill Belichick took their penchant of leaving victory to the very last minute to a painful extreme, with that agonizing coin toss to start overtime and so many third-and-long conversions to finish it.
Is it any wonder the words “heart attack” appeared in so many tweets fans posted during and after the wild ending?
“I’d really like to rewatch the second half & OT of the game now that I don’t feel like I’m about to have a heart attack,” @titlecityboston tweeted.
“Almost had a heart attack 6 times,” @emaley wrote, “but we good now!!!”
“What’s a heart attack feel like? Asking for a friend,” @bosjack wrote.
Some even posted screen shots from their Fitbits or other wearable devices showing spiking heart rates as the game ticked away and tension mounted.
The stress of that big game was no sooner over than it began to build all over again, for the bigger game coming up. It’ll be worse this time and we know it.
If that isn’t enough, along comes Hater Nation, aka the jealous and petty fans of other teams.
“It’s the calls I get from my friends in Chicago and LA,” said comedian Tony V, launching into the words he knows he’ll hear from them. “You know they’re cheaters.”
And sports radio, with its incessant criticism, amps up the ambient sense of risk, Tony V said. “They have to keep manufacturing controversy or they’d have nothing to talk about — Gronk is hurt, Brady is not what he used to be, Belichick is a cheater. . . . ”
Putting aside the myocardial infarction humor, stressful games really can take a physical toll on fans, said James Udelson, chief of cardiology at Tufts Medical Center.
“The risk of having a heart attack triggered by an important sporting event is well documented,” he said.
He pointed to a 2008 article in the New England Journal of Medicine in which researchers looked at the relationship between emotional stress and the incidence of cardiovascular events around the World Cup held in Germany in 2006.
The findings: “Viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event,” researchers wrote. “In view of this excess risk, particularly in men with known coronary heart disease, preventive measures are urgently needed.”
And what are those preventive measures (other than a nice early blowout, which we’ll get to in a moment)?
Well, just like for the players themselves, sound prep work before the Big Game: eating well, exercising, and not smoking, said Rory B. Weiner, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center.
Those with heart problems, Weiner said, should moderate their intake of alcohol, food, and salt during the Super Bowl itself. So, swap the beer and chips for seltzer and kale sliders.
And remember, said Lannon, the psychologist, yelling at the screen will not help the team.
She advises stressed fans to walk away from the TV for 30 seconds — yes, during the game.
“It breaks the neurological cycle,” Lannon said. “It resets the situation.”
But here’s an option that will let us enjoy the beer and nachos and screaming at the refs — and survive until next year’s Super (Stress) Bowl: Brady and Belichick put this one away early.
Researchers in Los Angeles conducted a study of death rates after local teams appeared in two Super Bowls in the 1980s. They found a spike in the rates, including those from heart-related events, in the two weeks following the Super Bowl in 1980, when the hometown Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a tough 31-19 fight.
Conversely, when the LA Raiders easily beat the Washington Redskins, 38-9, in the 1984 Super Bowl, there was a slight decrease in county death rates in the following weeks.
The one caveat was the Raiders were relatively new to LA. “The two Super Bowl games studied were markedly different in nature,” WebMD wrote. “The 1980 game was much more intense . . . and fan loyalty may have been greater because the Rams had been a Los Angeles team since 1946.”
Well, maybe that explains it. But why take chances? Pats, come Sunday, do your job.