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Watching football takes more of an emotional and physical toll on fans than one would think

The seemingly harmless act of watching your favorite sport puts a lot of stress on fans both emotionally and physically.

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For most, football merely seems like a spectator sport take takes up one day a year on Super Bowl Sunday. But for a small minority, football is ingrained in their lives. Diehard football fans spend their work week reading team blogs, making roster moves for their fantasy football teams and anxiously await for the weekend. Come game time, some are nervous wrecks, while others are adequately boozed up thanks to pregame festivities. For three hours, emotionally invested fans loudly cheer on their team, for better or for worse. Win or lose, these fans will be back next week for the same routine to quench their never-ending thirst for football.

While it's the warriors on the field who suffer the most from the sport of football, those that valiantly cheer on their team from the couch suffer from their fair share of football-related side effects. This vicious cycle of eat, sleep, football, and repeat can have quite the impact on the passionate fans of the NFL.

Recent studies have shown that the football-watching ritual of your average NFL fan can have a great effect on both the emotional and physical health of fans. Emotional games and close scores can not only break fans' hearts, but also cause heart failure. In the aftermath of the eventful Super Bowl XIV, heart-related deaths jumped 15 percent overall in the Los Angeles area two weeks after the hometown Rams fell to the Steelers. In women, that number increased to 27 percent. The over-65 population also saw a spike in circulatory deaths, with a 22 percent net increase. Researchers who reported these numbers hypothesized that "stressful games might elicit an emotional response that could trigger a cardiac event." Similarly, a 2006 study involving Munich citizens during that year's World Cup showed that "viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event." Much like Los Angeles after the big game, Munich-area hospitals saw an increase in cardiovascular-related events on days that the German national team played in the tournament.

So why exactly do sports have such a profound impact on the human mind and health? After all, you don't exactly see people dropping dead when their employer misses numbers one quarter, so why do fans have heart attacks if their team loses a game?

Psychologists and sociologists believe that it is a combination of both emotional attachment to our teams and a little bit of our evolutionary roots. Fans identify with teams so much that the team's on-field play can have a direct result on the self-esteem and well-being of fans. A early 90's study involving college basketball fans proved this, as "Fans who watched their team win reported significantly higher estimates of the team’s future performance, their own task performance, and personal self-esteem than did those who watched their team lose." As one of the study's authors put it, "The team is an extension of the self."

Those who study sports psychology like to use the actions of our ancestors to explain their findings. While modern football is not a matter of life or death, it is strikingly similar to our tribal roots. Teams are the warriors, and they wear tribal uniforms, while protecting or attacking on battlegrounds, or stadiums. The feelings of pride surrounding your 'tribe' are only amplified when playing a rival 'tribe', typically a divisional foe.

It's these so-called 'tribes' and need for a sense of belonging that have made sports so near and dear to peoples' hearts. In surveying college-aged fans, psychology professor Daniel Wann found that "higher identification with a team is associated with significantly lower levels of alienation, loneliness, and higher levels of collective self-esteem and positive emotion." So it stands to reason that the performance of our teams has a big effect on our personal health.

Not only can fandom affect physical health, but it can also do a great deal to a person emotionally. A 2011 study showed that NFL losses can cause a 10% spike in domestic violence reports in the immediate aftermath of a local football team loss. In particular, upset losses in which the home team was expected to win were the main occasions where the number of incidents increased. Rivalry losses result in domestic violence calls to almost double, and unsurprisingly, playoff losses also result in an uptick. More disturbingly, home team playoff losses resulted in "significantly" more homicides in the metro area of the losing team in the six days after the game.

In the end, tense rivalries such as Ravens and Steelers really aren't all that different from intra-familial or geopolitical conflicts, such as Hatfield v. McCoy, or Ukraine v. Russia. While the ramifications of the latter two are obviously much bigger than a football game, each feud features two sides with members and supporters who very much identify with and feel like they are part of their respective group.

But of course, it's just a game. Perhaps we should just calm down. After all, there's always next season.