Following the Super Bowl, millions of football fans suddenly exhibit mood swings and odd behaviors. Symptoms include flipping aimlessly through TV channels on Sunday afternoons or a sudden obsession with watching over-the-top touchdown celebrations. What could possibly be causing this strange phenomenon? The answer lies in a brain chemical called dopamine — but the reason might not be what you’d expect.
Most readers have heard of dopamine as the “pleasure juice” of the brain. From this, it’s easy to extrapolate that dopamine is released during enjoyable activities. During football games, you hang out with friends, yell at the TV, and overindulge on buffalo wings. It’s a pretty fun time, right? Dopamine must be released because you’re feeling happy.
This notion of dopamine being “pleasure juice” is incorrect. The chemical is more analytical than you’d think. Dopamine actually helps with learning and encoding the expectation that those rewarding, fun times will happen again. This encoding happens when dopamine levels rise during enjoyable moments. Say you get together with your buddies, relax, and eat delicious food every single game day Sunday. Dopamine recognizes this pattern of positive experiences and tells your brain that you should expect to do this every Sunday.
However, on the Sunday following the Super Bowl, there’s no more football on TV. You wake up and realize you’re not seeing your friends, your football heroes, or your favorite wing sauce. The expectation isn’t met, and boy, is your brain upset with this unexpected development. Dopamine neuron activity plummets when it expects a rewarding event, but doesn’t get it. This low dopamine state creates a state of craving. So, when you’re desperately YouTubing the best touchdowns of 2016 or reading up on Tom Brady’s bizarre diet, you can blame your brain’s neurochemistry — you’re trying to seek out something football-related to bring your dopamine levels back up.
Dr. Angelos Halaris, a psychiatrist at Loyola University Medical Center, considers this a legitimate phenomenon, and has coined it “post-football depression.” To curb football cravings, Dr. Halaris recommends easing out of the season by watching football clips at decreasing intervals (one clip per day, then one clip every other day, and so on). Going cold turkey is not recommended. He also suggests sharing feelings with loved ones, and to not resort to drugs and alcohol to cope.
On a more serious note, this same dopamine “slump” occurs in the brains of drug abusers. When addicts abstain from drugs, their aren’t meeting the “expectation” that dopamine has been encoding. The resulting dip in dopamine helps cause drug cravings during abstinence. It’s why going “cold turkey” is so difficult, and why treatment programs that “wean” addicts off drugs are successful. While it is ridiculous to compare post-football misery with drug addiction, the dopamine mechanisms do remain similar.
Unlike drug addiction treatment, and perhaps more realistically, Dr. Halaris encourages football fans to simply “tough it out.” Fans can find comfort in the fact that football will return in the fall. Now that’s something for dopamine to look forward to.
This contribution was co-authored by Adele Musicant and Deirdre Sackett
Peer edited by Aminah Wali
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