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Hello, I Have Anxiety Disorder - And Gaming Helps

Reaching Out

I have generalised anxiety disorder. It’s a condition that falls under "anxiety disorders", which also includes OCD, despite more often being categorised under “depression”. It sort of fits with both. It’s an obsessive condition that causes someone to be unable to control their fear, to become entangled in irrational and debilitating worry, and at its extreme, to be afflicted by horrible intrusive thoughts.

I’ve had AD since I was in my early 20s, undiagnosed until my late 20s. Those were some fairly horrendous times, not being able to understand why I couldn’t cope with basic situations, and utterly terrified that the awful thoughts I was having might be real. Too scared to tell anyone, and too fearful that if I did I’d be feared, I suffered badly. As it turned out, it was telling someone, anyone, that was the first step to getting a great deal better.

AD is a clever old thing. Like other forms of OCD, it has these creepy self-preserving symptoms. It tells its inhabited brain that seeking help could cause you to be diagnosed as mad, or at worst, any of the awful things your intrusive thoughts have tried to convince you could be real. It won’t. It could save, or massively improve, your life.

I finally told someone (my friend Nick) in my late 20s, and then someone else (my mum), and then, at last, my GP. That led to my receiving some counselling, which was okay but not great. The largest issue was, by then I’d spent years learning how to present myself to others as confident, secure and comfortable. I was bold, funny, happy to be the centre of attention – there were few signs that inside I was tearing myself into pieces. It was going to take a better counsellor than the very pleasant lady I saw to crack that open.

In the years since (I’m now 37) I’ve had various forms of counselling, all of them helpful, none of them ideal. Without them I don’t think I’d have had as smooth of a journey as I have. But it took the birth of my son, and an accompanying complete breakdown on my part, to finally hear the words I needed. “Oh, that’s all perfectly normal.”

A mental health nurse met with me for an assessment, during which I spilled everything, every fear, every symptom, every terrifying thought. I sobbed, shook, and crawled up inside my chair to try to make myself smaller, less likely to be harmed by it all. And she nodded, smiled, and said, “Yup, those are the symptoms of anxiety disorder.”

It was like the whack on the ice pick that caused the entire block I was encased in to shatter.

I’d gained the confidence to say these things out loud to her after having read a couple of things. Firstly, this, and secondly, this. Both had the astonishingly dramatic effect of normalising what I’d considered so impossibly abnormal. They put cracks in the spell the AD casts. Cracks in the ice, I suppose, to maintain the metaphor.

So why the flaming hell am I sharing this on a website about PC games? For two reasons. Firstly, because I know an awful lot of people reading are going through something similar, and if sharing this moves one person to get life-improving help, then it’s worth it. And secondly, because I want to share how important gaming has been to me for managing AD.

I think part of the reason that a few articles last year - that made nuanced arguments about the possible unhelpfulness of the term “gamer” - were so wildly misunderstood, is because gaming as a pursuit has often been the solace of people who are suffering. I’m not talking about tiresome clichés, but of a broad range of people and personality types, from the genuinely lonely and isolated, to the apparently gregarious and outgoing. I know from previous discussions of similar topics, readers of RPS have been extraordinarily open and generously honest about their own difficult times. I know that gaming can be the community that allows those who are either externally or internally isolated to connect to others. And existing in community, in positive communication with others, is a tremendously helpful part of feeling safe.

Whether it’s an online guild, or a group of friends who meet up in the pub, it makes a difference. But it’s not the only role gaming played for me. In fact, blessed as I am with some extremely good friends, it was also having the time alone with gaming that was (and is) most important for me.

I had assumed, until my meeting last year, that what I think of as my “cave time”, my coping mechanisms, were likely not helpful for dealing with the AD. I’m not sure how I’d reached this conclusion, but I imagine it was something along the lines of the twisted logic that because it was fun, it must therefore be bad. Hello anxiety!

I was, in fact, instructed to ensure I was embracing my coping mechanisms. So, for me, that is having blocks of time alone (which is still possible with a baby, so long as it’s done without selfishness, and indeed can be easily done with the baby in tow), doing things that keep my extremely fast brain busy. I’ve written a couple of times before about how I often need to multitask to keep myself focused, and the reaction tends to be a mixture of “Me too, it’s great!” and “There’s something wrong with you!”. It turns out it’s a combination of the two. Yes, my mind is a bit broken, and as a result goes too fast, needs too much input; and it’s great that this can be met by doing two things at once and enjoying them both.

A podcast, radio programme, silly TV show, accompanied by a videogame, whether it’s something like mucking about in Far Cry 4 or solving puzzles on my mobile phone, gives me a peace. It’s not curative, it’s not the solution to the problem. It’s a plaster. And when you’re bleeding, a plaster is a jolly good idea. It’s a considerably better idea to also go and find out what it is that keeps cutting you and getting it to stop, but in the meantime, that’s an easier task if you’re not dripping blood all over the floor. Ew, this metaphor got weird.

But, and this is crucial, it can be too much. Too much time alone, too much time in my cave, is disastrous. As with so many things, it’s about moderation. As the Project Massive study of the last decade discovered when seeking evidence for “gaming addiction”, the term itself is inaccurate and unhelpful, and they concluded we needed to use the phrase, “Problematic use”. Games can be used problematically – we all already know this.

Which is why I feel so sad, possibly angry, when I see the tedious tropes of “the lonely teenager in his basement” when it comes to videogames. Because if someone’s willing to write “lonely” and not then think, “how can I help them?”, then something’s really sodding wrong. When it’s used as a pejorative, to write off a hobby they don’t understand and to dismiss a person’s importance, it hurts those that games are helping and does nothing to support those who are playing them too much. There are lonely people playing videogames. There are people who are suffering playing videogames. The response to knowing this is to reach out, to make contact.

So this is, in a very small way, a reaching out to make contact. RPS is, in a very large way, a reaching out to make contact (as well as being a business that pays for our dinner).

If you recognise the description of the symptoms of anxiety disorder, or feel in any way that you’re struggling to cope, then there is amazing help out there. If you're like me, then reading your symptoms described in a nonchalant, ordinary way can be incredibly cathartic. If it's anxiety disorder or similar obsessive thinking, then have a read of this list by OCDUK. And for the fucking terrifying intrusive thoughts (that believe me, I'm feeling sick about sharing that I have these), then this is an incredible read.

If you need immediate help, then in the UK you can call the Samaritans (08457 90 90 90, any time), Mind (0300 123 3393, weekdays, 9am-6pm), or NHS 111 on, well, 111. If you're under 19, you can also call Childline (0800 11 11). In the US, there are lots of resources listed here, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255, any time) and SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline (1-877-726-4727, 8am-8pm EST). For the rest of the world (sorry to so tiresomely group you together), this site provides numbers for suicide hotlines around the world. And this site has a comprehensive list of international support numbers. (There's a weird pop-up box - clicking "okay" didn't seem to do anything bad to my PC.)

For longer-term help, which is so brilliant a thing to do, the best thing you can do is visit your doctor. If your doctor is shit, or dismissive, ask to see a different doctor. Don't be afraid to ask for referrals. Antidepressants have helped me, too - I'm on 20mg Citalopram - you can read more about them, and their pros and cons, on Mind's page on the subject.

RPS is clearly somewhat limited in its mental health scope, what with our being a website about PC games, and none of us being even vaguely qualified to talk authoritatively about it. But what we can do is reach out and connect. And so can you. Keep an eye on the forums where online gaming is organised, and real life meet-ups are arranged. If you're in London or Brighton, get along to one of the RPS Social Clubs, to meet with other lovely people. And if you're somewhere else (especially in other countries) and willing to start arranging a new Social Club, mention it in the forum and fire us an email. We've heard great stories about friendships formed at these, and it'd be amazing to hear many more.

No one should suffer on their own. No matter how bad it is, you'll find there are professionals who hear about it so often that it's perfectly normal to them, and who know what to do to start helping it get better. So go for it.

Very Important Disclaimer: RPS has no specialist knowledge or expertise when it comes to matters of mental health. We absolutely cannot and do not provide medical advice, as we are bumbling dolts who play videogames for a job. If the issues mentioned in this article affect you, we implore you to contact your doctor, or any of the advice lines listed above.

Images courtesy of Goce Mitevski, Antero Pires, Digital Cat, and Alan Levine.

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About the Author
John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org