Author’s Note: When I wrote this piece, I was in a very bad place in my life. I’ve since gotten help and things are going much better. I still wanted to share it with everybody, in hopes that it might help someone else in the same situation as me. Thanks for reading.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dealt with anxiety and intense stress. When I was a child on road trips with my parents, I used to ask them every couple minutes if they knew where they were and where we were headed. I would have full-fledged panic attacks when I discovered we were lost or didn’t know the proper directions. We always managed to find our way and I eventually realized that we were never truly lost. That anxiety has followed me to this day, even when I travel to and from work, or drive to a friend’s house that I have visited before. I’ll put the GPS on my phone, just in case I have to take a detour. Fast forward to my college years and things didn’t really come around. I dropped out of school because the pressure to succeed got to me. Pressure that, for all intents and purposes, I was solely putting on myself. To this day, not finishing college is one of my biggest failures in life that I regret immensely. So, what does anxiety and gaming have to do with each other you ask? Being an anxious gamer has limited me in many ways. I’ve stopped myself from playing games that I would have probably loved, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to start them. I’ve been gaming for a long time now and I’ve learned some tricks and ways to break my anxious brain into submission. Here’s my story…
Anxiety is a sneaky bitch. You feel inside you that something is wrong; something is different. Why can’t you enjoy things like other people do? I have to deal with all this stress for things that sometime feel so benign. It continues like this until something happens in your life that triggers you into thinking ‘why am I feeling this way?’ and, hopefully, forces you to get help. That help can come from your friends, your family or even trained professionals. Anything can be a trigger, the important part is that after asking around and gathering information, you get to name the cause. You get to name that thing that’s been eating at your stomach when meeting new people, that thing that makes you flip from being excited to go out somewhere, to staying home on the couch because you might get attacked when you go outside. That’s literally what anxiety is; it’s the survival instinct in your head going bat-shit crazy when dealing with a new situation or the unknown. That your brain thinks you might “get mauled by a savage bear right outside your front door” as my lovely doctor says. But, once you’ve named that bitch, the trigger, you can start fighting it.
For me, video games have been an amazing aid into dealing with my anxiety. Even before I knew what anxiety was, I knew that I could fight it by tricking my brain into thinking everything was OK. The most difficult aspect for me to deal with is starting a new game. That beast rises when I venture to play a game that I’ve never tried before or a style of game that I’m not familiar with. A recent game where I encountered anxiety before starting was The Witcher 3. Let’s put this in perspective; for someone who is afraid to leave his house, you now have a HUGE world to deal with. Yes, you have a map, but it’s full of question marks. Unknown places you haven’t been before that could very possibly (and will) kill you. Having to explore a world where there is literally a chance that you will die when going around the next corner is an anxious gamer’s worst nightmare. To cope with this and deal with the new gameplay elements, I would literally pause the game. Not all the time, but often during major plot points on boss fights, I simply pause the game and breathe. For some people, the thrill of finding something new and undiscovered is the reason why they play games in the first place. I want to hear the story, feel the gameplay mechanics and enjoy the inner workings of crafting stuff or talent trees. Pausing the game enabled me to take a moment and soak in everything that is happening, deal with it mentally, and then continue.
I’ve always been a big fan of MMO’s, which you might find surprising. The reason I got into them in the first place, like most people do, is to play with friends. Back when I first started playing MMO’s, you had 2 main game choices; Everquest, or World of Warcraft. Seeing all my friends playing WoW and their excitement, I decided to give it a shot. Leveling my first character was insanely difficult, not only because it took FOREVER in the original release of the game, but because after every couple steps, I would open my map and make sure I’m going in the right direction. I would check my bags every now and then to make sure I have everything I needed. I would go to websites like Allakhazam or the then newly release WoWHead to try and figure out the tasks for my quests. It really slowed down my progress. Then came the time to find a guild. Find new people to play with, strangers that would eventually rely on me for finishing dungeons and raids. I still remember very clearly my first ever Molten Core run with my Human Warlock. I was so stressed and nervous, having to deal with this new situation and the added pressure of playing with relatively new people. The only way I managed to wade through the pressure was preparation. Preparation, preparation, preparation. As silly as it may seem, knowing is truly half the battle. So I would read up on all the fights, know exactly what to do and know exactly where to stand. I would watch a multitude of videos on Youtube, dissecting and analyzing everything that was happening. Mind you, the videos then were nothing like the ‘let’s plays’ and walkthroughs people produce now. You pretty much had to guess what you were seeing from a blurry 240p gameplay capture. But that’s how I did it. And still to this day, when travelling to a new place I will look up the directions on Google maps, see where there’s potential parking places, memorize the façade of the building and find local landmarks to know EXACTLY where I am at all times. In any new situation, being prepared and knowing what to expect, is the key to success.
The worst thing I find to deal with when gaming, is playing with unknown people in a matchmaking system. I play Counter-Strike a lot. More often than not, I find myself entering matchmaking alone, which puts me with 9 other people that I don’t know. This IS the most unnerving situation I have to deal with on an almost daily basis when playing games. You’ve got the “joy” of playing with these strangers plus the “excitement” of them judging you based your skill in a competitive environment. The only reason I still subject myself to that torture is because I love Counter-Strike so much. I have played CS since it released over 15 years ago. This stress keeps me from games like DOTA or League of Legends, where the community is known for being incredibly toxic towards new players. Most people will ignore the criticism and have fun learning to play the game, but for someone with performance anxiety, I prefer not playing the game at all than fail on the first try. Unfortunately, there’s no real trick to getting around this type of anxiety, (or I haven’t found one anyway). I play CS because I know I’m a decent player and 98% of the time I’m stoked to play a game with like-minded people. As far as other competitive games go, who knows? Maybe one day, when the timing is right.
So why am I writing this today? I don’t really know to be honest… In a way, it’s a means of free therapy for me. I guess I’m hoping that putting into words those feeling I struggle with every day, it’ll help me deal with them. Maybe you will recognize something in yourself through my daily struggle. Maybe this piece will help you realize that, holy shit, I’m not alone. If that’s the case, please, please seek help. You are definitely not alone. More than 18% of the population will struggle or has struggled with anxiety at some point in their life and there are tons of resources out there to help you. Friends, family and professionals can all help so please don’t be afraid to seek it out.
As I reread my text, I realize that I go from past tense to present tense about halfway through it. I usually don’t censor my text when I write and to be honest, I proof-read for grammatical errors but nothing else. But you see, that’s how tricky anxiety is. I started writing this as a ‘tips and tricks’ article to deal with anxiety, only for it to come back and bite me in the ass. It made me realize that the anxiety is still there, inside me, waiting to pounce. It never really leaves. It’s always there inside your head, making you doubt… But now that I’ve named the bitch and I can start fighting her to take back my life, one heart piece at a time.