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How gaming impacts anxiety and vice versa

One of the things that I love about the world we live in right now (despite all its high stress content), is that there is such an incredible variety of interests, outlets, and activities that we have access to. With the increased availability to high-speed internet and crazy impressive ‘affordable’ technology, our options of what to do with our downtime are fairly endless. Each of these outlets comes with highs and lows depending on when, where, and how they are used. One of the options that we hear a lot about in counseling sessions, in both good and bad contexts, is ‘gaming.’ The term gaming refers to the use of video game systems, of all formats, and is something we would like to explore in our blog today; including how gaming can impact a person’s experience with anxiety (again for both good and bad). We have had a bit of a sabbatical from writing our blogs so forgive me if this is a little long winded as we get back into the swing of things.    

Since this writer must admit to being a bit out of date in the video game realm I went to our resident ‘gamer’ therapist, Cody, to explore this topic in more detail. Sections in italic print will be direct feedback from Cody and his experience, as both a gamer and a therapist who loves working with those that game. We are going to try to hit this from two angles, the gamer themselves and those around them trying to understand this immersive culture and way of connecting.

A bit of background on the evolution of gaming:  

The industry has come a long way since the invention of pong in the 1970s (FYI that was an Atari game). It has evolved into 3 main platforms, which I have learned people can feel DEEPLY passionate about when asked which is the best option: 

Console: 

This would be the stand-alone systems; Atari, Nintendo, Play Station, and Xbox are the most widely known but I have learned over the years that there have been dozens of options & versions. I have a friend who has accumulated a collection of over 40 different consoles (check out the pic of his impressive collection). But showing my age, a bitI will say that I grew up playing space invaders on the Atari and Tetris & Super Mario on the Nintendo  

PC: 

Personal computer-based games. These started out with incredibly basic games like Oregon Trail and Fishy where your main goal was to not die of dysentery or get eaten by a bigger fish. PC games are much more complex, often played using a specialized keyboard and mouse that lets you control your interactions with clicks and arrows. Which makes it sound simple and easy, but it is NOT (well not easy for me at least)! There is a lot to remember, and it can move super-fast. PC gaming can also get incredibly expensive when building & formatting a computer to run at its best and to give the gamer the best experience. Games are typically played online and involve other players that can be located anywhere from next door to halfway across the world.  

Cody tells me PCs are ‘the best’ way to game, but the concepts and suggestions we include applies to all gaming formats. The important thing is everyone playing what they love and having fun. 

Virtual Reality: 

VR is a newer but rapidly evolving market. VR games can be either connected to a PC or be part of their own stand-alone system. The most popular option right now is the Oculus, and it lets you fully immerse yourself in a game by putting on a set of goggles that transport you into a digital world, surrounded by a created reality and your movements in this reality are controlled by your actual body moving, monitored by motion sensors on the headset and a controller in each hand. This can be incredibly cool but also can increase a person getting lost and separated from those around them. We have not made it to the level of immersion from Real Player One, but I can see us getting there someday. Personally, my skill level is somewhere around the easy – normal level of Beat Saber but find VR fun & fantastic for an at home workout.  

Not just the cliché anymore:  

Traditionally when asked about a ‘typical gamer’ there are stereotyped images of an isolated individual avoiding all social contact. For some this cliché lifestyle has been a survival mechanism. With anxiety that can already be crippling in so many ways the isolation and use of video games is at least some respite and distraction from the battle they are already playing inside of their heads. It is important to note that The gaming world actually has a pretty wide community. The whole scene involving first person shooters (think Call of Duty) is the most mainstream and well known but there are tons of sub-genera full of average Joes and ‘normal’ people who do not fit into any category or box.  

Although, gaming is still mostly male driven, female representation is increasing and being more widely accepted. The virtual world makes this easier as you are known by your login handle rather than given name and image. A shift of voice and gender can become non-distinct and irrelevant.  

How gaming impact’s identity 

Although gaming is just a hobby or fun outlet to a lot of people, there can be a lot of someone’s identity tied up in it. Those with an underdeveloped sense of self can over identify with this community and alter themselves to ‘fit’ some perceived image or mindset of the collective whole. It is really cool because you can meet other people with similar interests and really get to know them. You have so many ways to communicate now. There’s Discord and in game audio apps that allow you to speak to a bunch of people. I have come to find a lot of gamers are introverted and games serve as more of an escape and a safe way to expand their social bubble. 

How might anxiety show up while gaming?  

As with any other hobby or outlet, anxiety can show up in a lot of different places and ways. One common area where it surfaces is in group settings, but a lot of it has to do with what you are doing. Group settings make it pretty bad because you can feel like you have to perform at a certain level, and this can enhance a sense of insecurity and or your concept of self-worth. It is interesting because a lot of people you play with are just usernames. You know nothing about them but still feel overly compelled to succeed. It is worse if there’s voice chat because people can be very rude 

The level of intensity in the verbal banter ranging from general criticisms on a player’s speed or accuracy all the way to crude and cruel verbal assaults. Some players go into deep depressions, panic attacks, or even experience suicidal thoughts because of extreme circumstances. Much like social media and other digital outlets, there is a level of removed accountability with how people treat each other. Feeling confident to say extreme insults that would never be acceptable if you were face to face. The other large thing to consider with this is that it is common for people to be playing across vast age ranges and the verbal interactions related to these being more normalized for players in their 20s & 30s but could be damaging to younger players without a developed sense of self and understanding of how to the social dynamics work or have the social maturity to be able to handle this. 

The danger of being ‘too good’ at gaming  

It (anxiety) can also manifest itself if things are going too well. In sports or music games for example; maybe you’re crushing your opponent and they have one good play. Then the seed of doubt is planted, and the negative self-talk can be deafening. Players can then become so focused on their own fears of failure that they start making mistakes, self-sabotage and/or forget about any progress, gains, or the fact that they were playing to relax and unwind. As with any area where your progress is compared to a group of your peers, the sense of pressure and competitiveness can be just as hard on the people on the top as it is on the people at the bottom.  

Managing the anxiety while gaming:  

There are a lot of ways to manage the anxiety generated from game play. Some can be helpful, others not so much. The worst coping skill is anger. You can find a million videos of people tilting (Tilting is just getting pissed off. It is not just video games) over video games. Either due to their own performance or the performance of their team. There are videos of people destroying things and just saying foul stuff. It is very common to hear about players losing their cool and breaking their controller, keyboard, or monitor/tv. This can become a VERY EXPENSIVE coping strategy that creates a whole host of new problems.  

As we know, anger feels good. So this is a very quick and easy thing to slip into. The issue is the anger does not stop. So continuing to play will lead to diminished performance due to the heightened emotional state. Which will just feed into the anger more and more.  

I think the best thing to do when you reach that point is to just stop playing. Playing while angry does not help. So, if that means sitting out a game or two, that is fine. That includes stepping away from voice chat. Sometimes people can be real ball busters and it will continue to annoy you. Having good boundaries with friends helps with this. It is important for them to know when it is ok to pick and when you need a second.  

This is where having a set group of friends that you play with comes in handy. If you are playing with a group of strangers and tell them you need to step out for a couple minutes you will likely have vastly different responses then you will from friends who you play with regularly, especially if you have already talked to them about having anxiety, frustration, or anger issues. Besides, touching base with your support system, whether it is virtually or in person, can be a great coping strategy for managing all types of anxiety.  

It’s not all bad; anxiety can be a powerful help for many in directing, controlling, and taming their anxiety 

But taking a break from the playing altogether when you are anxious or upset isn’t always the best go-to choice. Video games are popular enough right now that there are all kinds of studies of the good and bad elements related to them. One study from Connecticut Children’s Hospital found that boys who play video games actually have the LOWEST levels of anxiety but girls have been found to have the highest. Which means that they have found an indication that playing video games may actually be helpful to boys who are already struggling with anxiety, especially if they are playing with a group of friends. So instead of taking a break from the games system altogether, some will find that they can get relief if they just go to one of their comfort games. Everyone has a favorite game, and they can be pretty out there compared to the mainstream games. A comfort game is one that is familiar, easy, and calming. Mine are Madden 08, NCAA Football 2014, and Fallout 3. I have been playing Fallout since I was a teen and have beaten the main story more times than I can count. This lets the player go into a type of meditation called flow, where they are working their way through predictable but challenging tasks that can allow them to separate and reset from other external stressors.  

Have you had any history of anxiety triggered by or helped by gaming?  

Yes to both. Gaming was huge for me growing up. I was a little behind socially and had a really tough time with kids at school. I would sometimes get picked on, and I knew that I could go home and escape all that for a while by gaming. I still struggle with anxiety to this day and gaming has been immensely helpful in getting through it. I was especially stressed during grad school and would look forward to playing games with my friends every Wednesday and Friday evening.  

As for triggering anxiety, a lot of it has to do with performance. I play shooters with my friends, and I am clearly the worst at them in the group. No one cares, because it is all for fun, but sometimes it comes down to me to complete a task and that makes me feel anxious. But it is important to find a group that is just playing for fun and not competitively. Unless that is what you want to do. In that case remember to balance it in with other activities that let you unwind without stress and expectations.  

What do relationships look like in a gamer community? 

In the world of gaming the concept of community can be quite broad. As I mentioned, there is a lot of corners of gaming. They can range from similar interest to similar ideals. Which can bring in both good and bad elements of a person or belief system, some using it as a platform to reinforce anger or hate while others use it as an escape and a place they feel welcomed or accepted as they are.  

I have found that there are a lot of people in the LGBT community that have found gaming communities where they can be themselves and play with others without fears about being made fun of. To me, my gaming friends are almost all friends in real life. I live within an hour from all of them and it is just like hanging with them normally. I do have a few friends that I made through other friends that I game with that I have never met. I have a small group of Australian friends that we play with from time to time. A good friend of mine was stationed in Japan for a few years and gaming allowed us all to stay in touch and feel like he was a little closer to us.  

Despite the stereotype, I do think that gaming can teach some social skills. Finding online friends who encourage you to get out of your shell and challenge your anxiety can cause them to reach out and teaches the importance of 2-way relationships and looking out for your friends.  

How may family members have difficulty in seeing the importance of these connections?  

I think this is sort of a generational thing. The older generations may not see the way that the internet can bring people together and connect some isolated people with others like them. To them, it may seem like being cooped up in their room. But they are socializing so much with friends that it is anything but that. Oftentimes being able to use the gaming platform as a mechanism to create connections and friendships can generate higher quality and longer lasting relationships because the person is not being restricted to people living around them in a 10-mile radius. They can find people that they share values and goals with and this can be used to enhance their lives outside of the gaming realm. It is quite common that when I work with teenagers and a lot of adults that they will have a group chat with their ‘gaming’ friends running throughout the day, or they will log on to the game as soon as they get home, not because they necessarily just want to play right at that moment but because they want to talk and ‘hang out’ with their friends. Right now, in a world of pandemic isolation, that gives them a greater step up then most people.  

How do you see gamers impacted by COVID and the changes in in person connecting   

The running joke online was that gamers have been prepped for a pandemic for years. They do not leave the house and don’t really want to be near anyone. I can say that solitary/can be done at home hobbies saw a jump. During the last year and a half, as everyone had to learn how to slow down and whereas so many people really struggled with what to do with themselves when everything stopped moving, gamers were much better prepared for the shift emotionally.  

Another running joke in the computer gaming community is the neglect of games. You keep your games on a client called Steam. Steam will sometimes have really good sales and you’ll get games dirt cheap. Then you say you’ll play them and never get to it. I have over 100 games that I’ve never even downloaded on my computer and just sit in limbo. I think that COVID did lead to some people busting out their backlog to find something to entertain them. I don’t really notice any other major changes for the average gamer though. 

If you were going to give 2-3 pieces of advice to gamers to manage anxiety/ emotions, what would it be?  

Take a break. Playing all the time can lead to some other areas of your life being neglected. Gaming is fun and it’s easy to lose yourself, but make sure you are keeping up with friends and family. Make sure everyone that is important to you is still a priority. 

Don’t play mad. You won’t do well. It’s a vicious cycle that ends with more losses.   

      Find a good group of people to play with that will not be a source of stress. Enjoying who you play with will lead to better outcomes and you’ll have a blast. 

          Oftentimes, the most essential element in finding/ getting help from the counseling process is feeling like you have a connection with your therapist. Having someone that you feel hears you and can understand the world from your point of view, helps you with being able to let down your guard and really sifting through the good, the bad, and the ugly. We get that, if you or your loved one are a gamer and could use some extra support to get through the stressors of life, on and offline, Cody may be a good fit for you. Reach out to us through our ‘getting started’ tab and we will be happy to walk you through the process of getting started in counseling.  

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