How Video Games Have Helped Me To Cope With Anxiety
I'm what you'd call an incredibly anxious person. I have a habit of flicking through every single possible outcome in my head like a bored channel surfer, before plucking out the worst one and fixating on it until I'm convinced that's what's going to happen.
Usually, this anxiety takes form as a kind of... low-level hum that buzzes away in my stomach - I can usually ignore this and get on with my day, but I'm always aware of this vague pang, like something's about to go wrong at any second. Other days - and I'm fortunate that this is very rare - that anxiety can be so all-consuming that I effectively lose the will to eat, sleep, talk to people, or generally do anything I'd normally do.
In the past couple of months alone, I've told myself I'm going to lose my job, die - not just get, but die - from COVID-19, and get my foot cut off (I literally just ran on it funny for one day). None of these things have happened. But my brain did a hell of a job making me feel like they were going to. You can probably imagine how tiring that is. Or maybe you're like me and don't actually have to imagine very hard. Anxiety sucks.
I think that even before the entire world turned into an anthology series where every week shows a different way in which the planet could meet an early demise, a lot of us were struggling with our mental health. Way more than we would ever admit it, certainly.
In many ways, it's harder now than ever before to tackle and talk about these issues. Coping mechanisms, friends, and even therapy are now all out of reach - or at least a lot less readily available than ever before.
But that's why I wanted to talk about how video games have always helped me deal. To be clear, I'm not here to suggest that gaming is the only way, or even the best way, to deal with anxiety. There are studies that suggest it could be a bad way to cope, and studies that suggest it could help in your fight. Whatever, I'm really just here to share my own experience, and to see if any of you guys feel the same. Why not, right?
I'm so very glad that I have video games to fall back on when my anxiety really starts to play up. Sincerely. I'm lucky, to be fair - and I do recognise that. I have a supportive wife, great friends, and a cat. But sometimes just talking about my problems doesn't help. Or more accurately, it can help for a little bit... before the anxiety creeps right back in and erases any good feelings or rational thoughts I'd cultivated.
Playing video games though, is a guaranteed balm. Even on my worst days, you can plonk me down on the sofa with my Nintendo Switch or my PS4 controller, and I'll feel all the bad stuff melt away. It's never one specific game or genre that helps my anxiety - just the act of gaming.
As far as I can tell, there are multiple reasons gaming soothes my endlessly overworking mind. I'm gonna split these into four distinct factors, just to make it a little easier to explain myself. Again, I'm really not trying to suggest this has any merit beyond my own feelings, but if you recognise yourself in any of this? Awesome.
The first, and presumably most obvious, factor is nostalgia. What a person gets all misty-eyed over depends on age and experience, but for me it'll always be Nintendo games between 2000 and 2006. Particularly, I tend to drift back to Pokémon Gold and The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Two bangers, I'd hope we can all agree.
I'm sure it goes without saying that playing these games triggers all those happy memories of simpler times, and that can be so helpful when it feels like the walls are closing in and everything's getting a bit much. These are games that I know well, and that I know can only ever put a smile on my face. On the incredibly slim chance you've never revisited an old favourite when times are hard, please try it out. It could be just the thing you need.
Then there's the sense of wonder that I get from gaming - usually from titles I've never played before. The all-new experiences that draw me into their worlds with such effortlessness that all the crap my head was trying to tell me was a problem stops being a problem. This is especially helpful, since I know 100% of the stuff my anxiety tries to convince me of is absolute bull.
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Having video games offer me the space to step away and figure that out has always been immensely useful to me. Red Dead Redemption 2, The Outer Wilds, and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild are just some of the titles that have really given me that virtual breathing room of late.
They say a big part of mindfulness is being able to examine and accept your own thoughts without getting hung up on them, right? I'm certainly not comparing gaming to meditation, but I suppose the right game can help me get into a similar kind of state, and it feels awesome.
I also find value in the feeling of being in control that comes with gaming. I suppose I wouldn't consider this to be a major factor in soothing my anxiety, but it has been known to help. While not quite as effective as remembering happier times or giving me a chance to step away from my thoughts, the feeling of being in complete control of a virtual situation is - if nothing else - really damn cathartic after a crappy day.
Whether it's watering flowers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons or playing through Final Fantasy VII Remake, I know where I'm at, I know what to do, and I know I can keep trying until I get the desired result. When your entire day has been spent jumping helplessly between increasingly unlikely scenarios, having this level of control - even if it's not real or substantial - can be nice.
Finally there's the social aspect of gaming, which kind of does what it says on the tin. I should clarify that I don't tend to play online games much. If I'm playing with friends, it's usually gathered round one telly for some local multiplayer, because I maintain that will always be the best way to do it. I suppose this one helps the old noggin more because I'm surrounded by friends than anything else, but chatting with pals while playing games has led to some surprisingly deep conversations in the past.
I don't know exactly why this is. I'd love it if we lived in a world where people could always be honest and open, but that's not where we're at. For some reason, on multiple occasions, I've had friends open up to me about some seriously heavy stuff while playing Super Smash Bros. Melee or Modern Warfare.
Maybe it's because we're staring at screens so we don't have to look at each other and feel awkward? Who can say. But I'm grateful that games can provide that way into difficult conversations, because I also know that once you've had those talks with a friend, you don't always need a screen between you to have them again.
I don't pretend to know how - or if - games can really be used to help everyone with depression or anxiety. What I do know is that mental health issues can affect people in a number of ways, and to try and say whether or not video games definitely can or can't help would be impossible. It all comes down to the individual.
I know, for example, that my wife hates Dark Souls with a burning passion. If she ever got sad and overwhelmed and I made her play through that, she'd probably beat me with a sack of old batteries. But for me? The combat and exploration can help me focus my mind and cut out all the negative stuff - even if it means the anxiety has been replaced by a burning anger at the Abyss Watchers, I know it's not real anger.
I'd love it if we could all start talking more about how games can be used as a tool for dealing with mental health, instead of simply being consigned to the bin of dangerous or harmful coping mechanisms. There's a magic to them that I think an awful lot of people would understand if they stopped believing the worst of games and started looking at the positives.
I guess I can only really speak for myself, but I sincerely hope - and suspect - I'm not alone in this: were it not for video games, my mental health would be a hell of a lot worse. They help me relax, give me a chance to put things into perspective, make me feel like I'm in control, and often remind me I'm not alone.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo/CD Projekt/Rockstar/Matt Makes Games