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Experts Say It's Not So Bad to Go a Little Mad
Date:3/15/2010

Mental health experts cite positive aspects of March Madness, offer tips to temper drawbacks

CHICAGO, March 15 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The perfect storm of sporting events is nigh, and for three weeks people will become riveted by the David and Goliath matchups and Cinderella stories set against a backdrop of beers and big screens and bar food favorites.  Many believe this all consuming nature of the 64 team fight to the finish wreaks havoc on our wallet, our waistline and our workplace productivity.  However, two Northwestern Memorial Hospital mental health experts say there can be several positive aspects to March Madness, given things are kept in moderation.

"With the state of the economy, and the accompanying stress and worries, sporting events like March Madness can help people feel more enlivened," said Robert Sobut, M.D., a psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and clinical instructor of psychiatry at Northwestern University.

As basketball enthusiasm will soon reach a fevered pitch, many businesses fear their employees' excitement over the Big Dance will diminish their workplace drive and productivity.  Sobut believes the passion and emotion convened around sporting events actually serves to improve workplace efficiencies.

"Contrary to popular belief, if you're happy and enjoying life, which most fans are during the tournament, then their productivity over the long run will go up," said Sobut.  "It might take an initial hit, but people tend to become more efficient and more focused in a given set of hours when they are able to balance work with these outside interests, as long as it doesn't go overboard."

Another benefit to the March Madness excitement satisfies a very biological aspect of human nature.  "People are hardwired to enjoy the predictions inherent in March Madness," said Sobut.  "It's in our nature to predict things, as it helps us to survive.  So when we're correct in our predictions, people find it really intoxicating."

With 64 teams in the tournament, there are multiple predictions to make when filling out a bracket, from determining the winner of a single game to determining the winner of the entire tournament.   "Just by chance you could make several correct guesses," said Sobut.  "This sporting event is a great leveler, because since any team can win on a given night, people who don't have a lot of knowledge and expertise about sports can be as good at predicting the winner as experts."

Sobut describes the phenomenon as excitement building on excitement. "And this excitement outweighs the disappointment of losing, because even if your team falls short, you can latch onto other teams to follow and root for throughout the rest of the tournament."  

Kim Lebowitz, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Director of Cardiac Behavioral Medicine at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, cautions that it's important to make sure this excitement doesn't cross over to obsession.

"When we're rooting for a team, we can become emotionally stressed, which can put a strain on our cardiovascular system," said Lebowitz.  "And in general people's health behaviors tend to decline while they're watching sports, because they're eating high calorie, high fat foods, drinking more alcohol and smoking more cigarettes."

To temper any potential health drawbacks, Lebowitz advocates taking a moderate approach to the hoopla.  "Make this a pleasurable activity but also make sure you're taking care of yourself.  Engage in activities throughout the course of the tournament to reduce the physiological effects of stress and poor health behaviors on your body:  relaxing, exercising and quiet time."

"It's a fun and enjoyable time of year; you just want to make sure you're doing things in moderation," said Lebowitz.

SOURCE Northwestern Memorial Hospital

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