Stressed out? It's all in a day's work

Stressed out? It's all in a day's work

As the regular season wound down, I recalled several discussions I had with friends regarding whether the Red Sox would overtake the Rays and how much experience would matter down the stretch. At the time, the experts (that would be those of us involved in the conversation) agreed that the pressure of the race would get to Tampa, they'd collapse and the Sox would win the division. But a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs.

That just goes to show you that we knew about as much about pressure as those Wall Street bankers knew about the mortgage market. And whether we like it or not, we're all getting a lesson in stress management.

"I'd rather talk about baseball first," said Dr. Jacques Carter, a Member of Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "The Red Sox have the pressure of high expectations, the Rays are a bunch of young guys playing above their heads, to a degree. Even if Tampa hadn't won the division, just making the playoffs was a successful season."

Dr. Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, who is also on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess, has a similar opinion, but was quick to point out that the playoffs bring a different kind of scrutiny.

"Ballplayers deal with success and failure on a daily basis," said Miller. "When .300 is a great batting average, that tells you that even the best hitters are failing to get on base more often than they are succeeding. You can have a day where you go 0-for-4, but you know that over the course of a season things can work themselves out.

"In the playoffs, the stress gets ratcheted up. The Sox have experience with that. They've done a good job of creating a supportive environment where pressure is less likely to undermine the players' performance."

Eight baseball teams have the chance to test their response in the postseason. The one that is best able to deal with stress may have the pleasure of divvying up a bundle of dollars into playoff shares. Meanwhile, the rest of us are dealing with declining shares on the stock market and the dwindling value of our dollars.

"Some amount of stress is normal -- even healthy," according to Miller. "But when people have to worry about their jobs and their bills without a safety net, and they feel they cannot afford to fail, that engenders panic. It's harder to manage problems and there are physiological consequences, too."

"Chronic stress increases the risk of cardiac problems," Carter said. "It affects blood sugar levels, it can lead to gastrointestinal problems. You might have trouble sleeping or have muscle tension that leads to headaches. Believe it or not, people often blame their symptoms on everything but stress."

Both Dr. Carter and Dr. Miller agree that an important first step in dealing with stress is acknowledging it -- not allowing it to become part of the "background noise" in our lives. Being part of a team helps, too.

"Guys in the locker room can pick each other up," Miller said. "We all could use a support system. That can be family, friends or a mental health professional. People tend to do better if they can talk to someone who can help them de-escalate the crisis, give them perspective, or take an overwhelming situation down to its manageable bits -- like the pitcher who breaks the game down into one batter, even one pitch at a time."

Carter has another helpful strategy.

"Exercise is a great stress reducer and it has the all the added benefits of increasing fitness. And while I know it's easier said than done, try not to worry about things you can't control. Take care of yourself first."

Will do, Doc. And I'll try not to stress over the Sox taking care of the Angels.

Gary Gillis is a contributor to MLB.com. The BID Injury Report is a regular column on redsox.com. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is the official hospital of The Boston Red Sox. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.