Super Bowl and Super Stress: The Heart-Brain Connection

I am sure that almost everyone has plans for Super Bowl Sunday, even if you are not a football fan.  The Super Bowl has become a mega-social event surrounded by lots of food, spirits and fun.  Families and friends gather for the game and many folks are emotionally invested in the game.  For some, the stress of the Big Game can be life threatening.

As we prepare for Super Sunday, I am reminded of a New England Journal of Medicine article from 2008 that addressed the cardiovascular effects of watching major sporting events. (N Engl J Med 2008; 358:475-483 Jan 2008).  Soccer’s FIFA World Cup was held in Germany in 2006.  Utilizing several sites in Bravaria, researchers studied patients treated in area emergency rooms for acute CV diagnoses during the World Cup event.  Investigators examined the relationship between viewing a stressful world cup soccer match and myocardial infarction, cardiac arrest and other signficant major cardiac events.  Event rates spiked on days when the German team played and seemed to be at their greatest on the day in which Germany narrowly defeated Poland in a very close match.  After the data was analyzed, it was concluded that viewing a stressful soccer match was associated with a doubling of risk for an acute cardiovascular event.

There has been much work done linking stress and the heart.  Typically, when stressed, heart rate and blood pressure increase and the body may release large amounts of catecholamines or other stress hormones.  Stress mobilizes our resources in a way that allows us to respond to emergencies with increased  cognitive and sensory skills for a short period of time.  However, in a heart  previously damaged by coronary artery disease or other insults, stress can be devastating.  Studies suggest that the acute stress reaction can result in myocardial infarction or heart attacks in susceptible individuals.  These victims may not even know that they are at risk and that they are harboring undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.

So, what can American Football fans learn from this?  First of all, remember to breathe.  There are lots of techniques to reduce stress and many involve biofeedback and invoke breathing techniques for relaxation.  Meditation, yoga and other modalities are useful for stress management.  An abstract published in Circulation in 2009 showed a 43% reduction in risk for myocardial infarction and all cause mortality when a transcendental meditation program was utilized by an at risk population.  Practicing relaxation techniques may produce positive effects on the cardiovascular system such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate and increasing blood flow to large muscle groups.   In addition, these techniques may reduce anger and frustration and improve your ability to concentrate and accomplish your goals.  All taken together, these events make us happier, more confident and allow us to better enjoy both work and play.

So, go ahead, cheer for your team.  Jump up and down, clap your hands, eat a few snacks (healthy ones, of course).  Enjoy the company of friends and family.  But, when you become angry about a bad call  or feel the overwhelming stress of a last second field goal attempt to send the big game into overtime…Breathe!  

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