Author’s Note: This article may come off as a narcissistic, self help therapy session. And in fact, it is. However, I hope that within its lines of text and colorful pictures, you will find something useful if you suffer from anxiety disorder. Feel free to read on at your leisure and take these opinions as what they are: ruminations from an anxious mind.
It was a cool Florida night; I awoke out of a dead sleep in a fit of terror. My hands clamped up, my chest tightened, chills ran down every inch of my body, my stomach wretched, erratic, illogical thoughts flitted in and out of my head before I could grasp them. Except for one: through my head, I was dying. I felt paralyzed to move or even make a sound. It was as if a switch had gone off and I was being electrocuted from within. I was 28 years old and for all practical purposes, a healthy young adult. What could possibly be going on that would create such turmoil in my body, and more importantly, why?
As it turns out, I was having a panic attack brought on by a night in the hospital with food poisoning. But as I soon discovered, it was much deeper than that. At this point, I had been managing a retail store for nearly 3 years. It was an immensely stressful job and the effects of 12 hour days, deranged co-workers and the death of my beloved grandmother had all hit me like a semi-truck smashing into a giant, plate glass window. My state of mind had shattered into a thousand shards of piercing glass, all stabbing at me from within. I didn’t understand this at the time, but six years of research, practice and patience have taught me now that anxiety and panic attacks appear for very specific reasons.
Fast forward to the present; I was on a trip with my wife visiting relatives in Atlanta. We arrived at an event that was taking place at the Georgia Dome. An event, you know, with thousands of people. No big deal, right? Well, after nearly 2 years without a panic attack, my winning streak came to an abrupt end. It all came rushing back to me in one, terrible, devastating wave of anxiety. Unfamiliarity with my environment and an utter lack of focus on anything but worry had led me to this moment. Thinking of the ten hours I was to spend in a stadium full of people, left me literally breathless. I left my wife and family, found a quiet place, and cowered.
What led me back to this unfortunate place was my own stubbornness and quite frankly, stupidity. Pushing myself too hard in my daily life had resulted in an explosion of negative energy that was building with every excessive, caffeinated beverage and reckless night with limited sleep. I was naïve enough to believe that I wouldn’t have to endure this feeling again; but as before, there was a very specific reason why this happened. Luckily for me however, I had been through this before. And this time, I was better prepared.
So by this point, it’s no secret: I suffer from Panic and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. At first, I was ashamed and embarrassed, but with time, I have come to understand and accept my condition. Frankly, it is nothing to be ashamed of. 18% — nearly 40 million Americans — suffer from Anxiety in one form or another on a regular basis. This means that there are plenty of other people out there with a similar condition to my own. That fact alone should make any person wracked by Anxiety feel at least somewhat reassured.
But what about gamers? This is a gaming website after all, I should be talking about video games right? Well, as it turns out, another thing I am discovering in my own life is that the more gamers I get to know, the more stories I hear from them that bare remarkable similarities to my own. Anxiety and gaming, could there be a connection? Later in this article, I plan on examining that exact topic, but first, I want to explain how gaming has helped me with my anxiety and how important it is in enabling me to help keep “control” of my senses.
One of the ironic things about anxiety and panic is that they require an extreme amount of focus from you. But how could this be? When you are panicking, it’s impossible to focus! Well, look at it this way: a panic attack is triggered by a downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. The more you focus on these ideas in your head, the more prone you become to a panic attack. Once the full blown attack hits, your body and mind (whether you realize it or not) have shifted completely over to fixating on only your anxiety. Years of inadvertently training yourself to focus on “scary” and “negative” thoughts and emotions are what culminate in an eventual panic attack. And many unpleasant sensations tend to come with it. Your mind is paying full attention to your body, looking for trouble, focusing intently on it, and your body reacts, often times violently! However, if you are able to harness your attention, pry it away from the turmoil and focus on something productive, the fear begins to melt away. Distracting yourself with say, a video game, becomes a wonderfully blissful release in a situation like this. A game may not always be on hand when you are having a “high anxiety” moment, but it can certainly help in a pinch. Video games require focus and concentration, what better way to interrupt your anxiety than to focus on a game?
Interestingly, my earliest memories of anxiety also correspond with a video game. I was probably around 11 at the time and remember sitting on my grandmother’s couch with a horrendous stomach ache. On this particular day, we had received a new game, which my brother promptly popped into our Super Nintendo. The game was called “Joe and Mac: Caveman Ninja.”
While I sat there holding my stomach in pain, my brother began to pester me to play. Eventually, even though I wasn’t feeling well, I relented, sat down and proceeded to have a great time. Miraculously, my stomach ache slowly drifted away. “WOW!” I thought. “Joe and Mac has some serious medicinal qualities! This controller must be oozing Pepto Bismol!” Well, not exactly. What I didn’t realize until much later in my life was that I was actually experiencing anxiety, not a real stomach ache. But the fact remained, and still remains today, that distracting yourself from the toxic processes that lead to anxiety— with a game, for instance— can help immensely when anxiety leaves you hurting.
Another landmark game that helped me with my anxiety, albeit, much later in life, was Metroid Prime. I didn’t discover this game until about 6 years after it was released, but it didn’t matter. I was mesmerized from the very beginning. Few games have had the same profound effect that Metroid Prime had on me. The significance was intensified due to my fragile state of mind at the time. What I was going through in my life was excruciatingly difficult, and this dark, sinister, fascinating game helped me through the worst of it. It forced me to face some of my biggest fears at the time.
If you haven’t played Metroid Prime, it is at times a terrifying experience. Because the game was so dark, atmospheric and involving, I was forced out of the rut of my toxic thoughts. Heading down deep into a black-as-night space pirate base loaded with horrid beasts was enough to make my hairs stand on end. Or through a massive underwater cave into an abyss filled with man-eating carnivores! One might think that this was the last thing someone afflicted by anxiety would need, but I think perhaps that Metroid Prime allowed me to replace the anxiety I associated with the real world with a “fantasy” anxiety. A faux-anxiety that could be set down just as readily as the controller. That in itself is an extremely important lesson that I eventually applied to my real life. The first step to overcoming your fears is facing them. And what better place to face them than in the ultimately benign environment of a video game? It was a difficult challenge in my anxiety-loving state at that moment, but thanks in part to Metroid Prime, I did it anyway.
Metroid Prime taught me that if I focused my mind on something other than my real world anxiety, I could help heal the pain. The game also challenged me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing at the time. My panic attacks had led me to a mild case of agoraphobia, although after the horrors I faced in Metroid Prime, going outside my house seemed pretty harmless by comparison. But the most important thing though, was that the game demanded my attention and focus at all times. Taking it away from my anxiety and giving it to Metroid Prime enabled me to feel a great relief in an extremely trying era of my life.
Although I paint a rosy picture about my experience with gaming and anxiety, there are studies that will tell you otherwise. If you do a simple Google search, you’ll find plenty of information about the link between anxiety and depression in relation to excessive video game play. Frankly, I think the studies are true. I believe that anything done in excess can have a negative impact on one’s life. My 12 hour gaming sessions in college did nothing good for my mental state in the long run (although like a drug, it provided me with a temporary high). I discovered later in life though, that once I entered the “real” world, moderation was the key to really getting the most out of my gaming experience.
But the part about this journey of mine that has taken me the most by surprise are the other gamers I have met who have shared their struggles with anxiety. Could this be because we play too much? Or are people with anxiety issues prone to seeking a release through games? Is there any scientific evidence to back up gaming as an actual link to anxiety and depression? Well, I have my own theories. Let’s explore a couple of them.
Now, first and foremost, I want to say that I am going to make some generalizations here, (so if you get offended, and some of you might, feel free to heckle me on Twitter) but I want to be honest about how I feel and what I personally have experienced in my life. So feel free to take this with a grain of salt. With that being said, here it goes: It’s a well known fact that a lot of (but not all!) gamers are out of shape, eat poorly and don’t exercise. Just walk into any Gamestop or local game store and you’ll know what I’m talking about. My wife refuses to go into my local Play N Trade with me because the BO is so bad, it’s almost nauseating. There is a lousy stereotype that goes along with gaming and unfortunately, sometimes it’s for good reason. Gaming is a sedentary activity. Those long gaming sessions coupled with constant munching on unhealthy snacks and no physical activity can obviously be detrimental to your body, your health and not to mention your mind.
And speaking of snacks, there is one in particular that is pretty much synonymous with gaming. Well, it’s a drink actually:
That’s right, Mountain Dew. And yes, I have had my share over the years. In college, my friends and I would sometimes play Halo till the wee hours of the morning, burning through a 24 pack, pizza and then candy for the rest of the night. It was a wonderful, horrible experience. Although this was also before the days where they decided to start directly targeting gamers:
Halo 4, Doritos and Mountain Dew! With Double XP! So the more you buy, the more you guzzle, the more XP you get and the more stuff you can unlock in the game. With these kinds of synergistic bad habits and vicious cycles, it’s no wonder there are so many out of shape and unhealthy gamers. But wait, there’s more!
There are even specialty flavors for specific games, in this case, World of Warcraft. It’s GAME FUEL! Keep yourself going as long as possible! Never stop till you drop dead!
All joking aside though, what is my point? How does all this relate to my theory that gamers suffer from anxiety more than the general population? Well, it just so happens that three of the worst habits that gamers tend to have also happen to be the leading causes of anxiety. The first?
Caffeine! It’s been shown in many studies that excessive amounts of caffeine can exacerbate anxiety. And as I’m sure you know, caffeine is also a stimulant. It increases your heart and breathing rate, which if you are suffering from anxiety, is akin to increasing your own stress levels through stimulation. A gamer who sits through extremely long gameplay sessions, all the while chugging Mountain Dews or downing coffee after coffee, can literally be a nervous wreck by the time they finally “crash” at the end of their play session.
The second common cause of anxiety is lack of sleep. Again, another item that has been well documented to increase anxiety. I shouldn’t have to explain why not getting sleep is a problem, it’s common sense. When we don’t sleep, we tend not to think straight and when we don’t think straight, it’s easy to stop seeing things rationally. Worry, irritation, anxiety, regret, they all begin to creep into our lives when we lack the ever important shut eye. Combine a hardcore gamer’s all night caffeine-fueled-sleepless event, and the chances for having extreme anxiety or worse, a panic attack, increase exponentially.
Lastly, we have exercise, or more specifically, lack thereof. Living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to depression and anxiety on its own. And sadly, since gaming tends to be a sedentary activity, it tends to go hand-in-hand with gamers who suffer from this condition. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, a natural defense against depression and anxiety. When you don’t exercise, you don’t get the benefits. It’s that simple.
Alright, now that I have gotten all of that negativity out of my system, it’s time to examine the positive. Specifically, what gamers can do to combat anxiety and hopefully beat it, with the help of gaming!
Anxiety is a strange beast. In my case, I’ve dove 110 feet to the bottom of the ocean with an explosive air tank strapped to my back, traveled to far off places like Indonesia on what is basically a flying bomb, backpacked all across Europe, climbed trees that are sometimes a hundred feet tall (with no type of equipment or harnesses) but put me in a family gathering, crowded stadium or put my pinkie toe outside of my circle of comfort for too long, and I get anxious. It’s a strange and frustrating paradox that amounts to little more than your brain conditioning your body to react to certain situations, regardless of whether or not danger is actually present. But I like to think that with practice and patience, it can be beaten.
I believe in essence, that there are many solutions for dealing with Anxiety. The first can apply to every facet of our lives, which is simply living a healthy life style. That alone heightens your state of mind and makes you feel better by default. But I understand that this isn’t always an easy goal to achieve for everyone. I also don’t want it to look like I’m preaching at everyone. Giving up bad habits can be a difficult challenge (it certainly has been for me). But if you can manage to give up the worst of them, and moderate the rest, it can go a long way to help you on the rocky road to recovery.
So in the interest of trying to finish this article on a positive note, I want to share with you what I have done personally to better myself in my attempt to beat anxiety. Gaming the “healthy” way is only a fraction of the challenge, (which my comrade Michael Bowerman talked about in his wonderful Mass Effect article.) I personally still have a long way to go, although I’ve made incredible progress in the last couple years. So with that in mind, here are some inspirational thoughts and routines that I use in my life:
What is life without challenges? I don’t know about you, but I love a good challenge! And I also like to think that if you are a gamer, you love a good challenge also. Why else do we game anyway? What would be the point of gaming if every game were easy? Yes, you may have fun with it, but to what end? For me, a great, challenging game has always enabled me to let the real world melt away, and a lot of times, my anxiety along with it. If you are unfamiliar with my SHMUP Master Series of videos (shameless plug), then you will see a major form of therapy for my anxiety of late.
When I dedicate myself to doing a SHMUP Master episode, it takes an insane amount of practice, patience and perseverance. Not to mention it is a massive challenge! My routine generally consists of 30-60 minutes of practice, 7 nights a week until I can beat the game without dying. For my first video, it took me over a month, for my second, two and a half weeks. And that’s just capturing the run! Forget about editing… But my point is, the incredible amount of focus it takes to pull it off is great for my anxiety. When I am in “the zone” there is no room for my mind to think about anything else. It’s a wonderful feeling. But also notice that my practice sessions are not a 12 hour marathon. It is a deliberately dispersed, moderated process. Which leads me to my next point: Moderation.
Moderation has become the core of my existence, and for good reason. I could write an entire article just on the benefits of moderating everything in your life. It is so important to keeping a positive frame of mind. When you do anything in excess, your body punishes you for it. Perhaps not at first, but drink those 12 beers and see how you feel the next morning. Play Skyrim for 14 hours straight and see how your body reacts to the excessive amount of inactivity. The last “gaming marathon” I took was probably over 2 years ago. It was with a damn wonderful game called “Terraria.” I played it for a good 12 hours straight, only breaking to use the bathroom and eat. The experience itself was wonderful, but like a euphoric dose of Heroin, the high was over once the gaming stopped. And I was left feeling anxious, exhausted and downright bleary. I also had a lot of trouble sleeping that night due to my heightened anxiety. Since that day, I vowed to game no longer than a few hours at a time at most. But what if you still want that 12 hour gaming marathon? Well, there are ways to beat the devil at his own game.
EXERCISE! I can’t emphasize this enough! If you still want to have your marathon gaming sessions, why not take a break every couple hours and go for a run, or even just a walk around the block. Anything to get your heart pumping and muscles moving again. I exercise 5-6 days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes. It has done leaps and bounds to help my anxiety and state of mind. I talked about the benefits of exercise earlier in this article. But I want to drive the point home; exercise, and you will feel better, whether you have anxiety or not. Combine it with your gaming habits though, and it’s even better. Nintendo has tried to do this (and in my opinion, failed) with the Wii Fit. But who needs that funky balance board, buy yourself a used treadmill for less, put on some let’s play videos of your favorite games, and run yourself to a better life! And better health! I know, exercising isn’t easy, but like I said before, challenge yourself! If you play video games you obviously like a challenge, use that positive energy and harness it to do better in other areas of your life. I’m doing it, so can you!
On the subject of eating, I spelled out earlier how gaming and overeating can easily go hand in hand. The sedentary activity of gaming basically begs you to eat while you’re sitting. And it’s a hard habit to kick. One thing I have done to combat it (and it also helps me feel better overall which in turn, helps my anxiety) is to eat smaller meals more often throughout the day. I have also coupled that with eating less overall.
Nearly two years ago, my wife and I gave ourselves a challenge, and we have stuck to it ever since. That challenge was eating less. When we go out to eat, we share meals. When we’re at home, we eat only until we are satisfied, not until we are full. When I’m gaming, I don’t eat at all. If I feel the need to “munch,” I’ll usually drink something instead. And it’s usually Green Tea or just plain water (although Green Tea has caffeine so I drink it sparingly). It at least gives me something to fill that empty place in my heart for munching or drinking while gaming. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but again, challenge yourself and you’ll find that eating less can change your life in many ways. You don’t necessarily have to give up the food you love, just eat less of it.
I am no doctor, so I will not pretend to know what drugs, if any, could be right for you. However, what I will say is that the drug Lexapro has worked wonders for me personally. Some people might be too proud to medicate, but I can personally say that it has helped me nearly eliminate panic attacks from my life and lessened my anxiety by a large margin. Be warned though, drugs are a Band-Aid on a festering wound. In my opinion, the only way to heal the wound completely is to change your habits and better yourself. Anxiety is there for an underlying reason. Let the drugs help steer you in the right direction, not drive for you.
This one is by far the hardest. Everyone loves a good cup of something that will perk you up and make you feel “ALIVE!” Especially when you’re fired up to play a game! I was no exception. I LOVE my Chai Tea from Starbucks. To the point where I was spending around $50 a week! Just on caffeinated drinks! That’s $2600 a year! But put the money issue aside and I was still feeding my anxiety with a jittery mass of caffeine every single day. I probably consumed enough each day to last an entire week.
So not only did the caffeine affect my anxiety, but my inability to sleep (because of the caffeine) compounded the problem. So I decided to stop, cold turkey. And while the first two weeks were incredibly tough, (I did very little gaming because I was so out of it) once I was off the “drug,” things began to change. I could sleep again! And not only that, I found that because I was sleeping normally, I didn’t even need the caffeine to function anymore. It’s a cycle that feeds itself. Once you break it, you’re free. And not only that, but the same cycle that feeds your anxiety is also broken. The result is self explanatory, I felt better.
And that brings me to the last major life change I’ve made since anxiety challenged me to better myself:
Ironically, (and perhaps for this article, appropriately) the first time I ever “noticed” meditation of any kind, was in the game Street Fighter 2. You’d think that a game about pounding each other in the face wouldn’t involve much meditation, but my favorite fighter to play as was a meditation/yoga master named Dhalsim. He was an interesting character in many ways but the element that always stuck out for me (other than his elastic yoga limbs) was that every time you won a match he would squat, cross his legs, and then levitate into a meditative stance in mid air. I remember a joyful pride every time I beat down my competitor and Dhalsim pulled out that pose. It was a taunt, but at the same time, it was also cerebral and Zen like. It left me incredibly curious about this “meditation.”
It wasn’t until college though that I really discovered what mediation actually was. Although I wasn’t truly serious about it until I got a bit older and my anxiety worsened. It was at this point in my life that I began to seek out and discover the wonderful benefits meditation can provide. I believe that if you can master it, it will enable you to calm your mind, relax your body, raise your spirits and feel truly exceptional. It also made me realize that Dhalsim’s levitated, meditative stance actually made sense. One of the only ways I can describe pure meditation is that it’s as if your body is floating. How appropriate!
In conclusion, if I’m being honest, my intentions in writing this article were purely for selfish reasons. I really needed to get my thoughts about my condition out of my head and into a cohesive whole. It’s been years of pent up feelings that have haunted me to almost no end. Granted, life has been good the last couple of years, but my recent set back left me questioning everything that I’d learned. Luckily for me though, I am a stubborn individual who doesn’t give up easily. This article is partly a result of that.
What I have written here is a self-therapy session that I hope will help others who may also be suffering from Panic Attacks and Generalized Anxiety disorder. I also hope that it will enable people who don’t have these problems to better understand what we, as anxious individuals, go through almost every day of our waking lives. But most of all, I wanted to weigh in on the positives and the negatives associated with anxiety and how it can relate to video games.
If anyone reading this is suffering and needs someone to talk to, please, reach out. I would love to hear your stories and help if I can. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zfunk007. And if not me, then someone close to you. I can’t express enough the importance of opening up to people about your condition. My wife has been my support beacon since the beginning and I don’t know how I would have gotten through this without her. If we all work together and help each other, we can reach new heights in our journey to a new, anxiety-free life.