Ever have anxiety while playing video games? You’re not alone. Many people find video games to be anxiety-inducing even when they’re desperately trying to relax. I am one of those people. Gaming wasn’t always stressful, but with my life becoming more complicated as I got older, the relief I used to have from gaming turned into anxiety when my tendencies for completion and control took over.
Anxiety can affect a person’s life in many ways. It “comes in many forms, but often involves repetitive negative thoughts that are hard to soothe,” says Risa Williams, a licensed psychotherapist and author of the Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit. “Game anxiety can include repetitive thought loops, especially about things we can’t complete in the game.”
It can also be more than the failure to complete a game. Players can feel disappointed in letting their teammates down during multiplayer gameplay and feel lonely when playing solo. There are many things that can cause anxiety, including feeling “an unwillingness to play a different game” until a portion of it is cleared, says Yonatan Sobin, The Nerd Therapist. “In more depth, it's a bit of a fading interest in the experience of gaming, and often, getting physically anxious when you can't complete a particular task or achievement in a game, and finding oneself frustrated and unable to ‘get into the flow’ of the game.”
Gaming anxiety affects people everywhere and can show up as symptoms like headaches, palpitations, abdominal pain, and paresthesia—that pins-and-needles sensation—as well as feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem, says Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director of Community Psychiatry.
So, what do you do? Give up on video games for good? Not necessarily. There are ways to strategize and learn to enjoy video games so that they’re no longer an issue.
Set Smaller, Healthier Goals
While it can be hard to do, thinking of smaller tasks you want to accomplish in your video games can reduce your anxiety.
“When we’re just trying to complete levels or big achievements, it can be tempting to just keep going after you’ve achieved them,” says Williams. For this reason, creating smaller goals with a time limit can help you feel relaxed—especially as games become increasingly achievement-based, with a feeling that you never really “finished them.”
To reduce the need to complete everything, Williams suggests redirecting your focus toward other activities that can provide “brain rewards,” and plan for goals outside of the game to keep you motivated. These brain rewards are tasks that you can shift to—ones that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with the feeling of achievement.
For me, brain rewards include choosing one thing to complete in my game of choice, Stardew Valley. I know that I can’t do everything in one day, so I choose one task and complete it. When I feel like a smaller goal is too narrow, I’ll set a larger goal to fulfill that need. If leveling up a skill isn’t enough, then I’ll set a collection goal, and completing that will make me feel satisfied.
Refocus Your Energy Elsewhere
Finding something calming to do before and after gameplay can help with anxiety. It can be anything that you’ve used before to reduce stress.
Magavi advises that gamers listen to their favorite song in tandem with taking “several deep breaths to slow down their respiratory rate and prevent panic.” Whenever you happen to observe a change in mood or breathing, taking a break to practice breathing or exercising can relieve gamers of anxiety.
Whether you're playing solo or with a team, sharing those experiences with others can help, and you can do this by initiating conversation with teammates or opponents to build a friendlier atmosphere.
Ultimately, gamers should also learn to “laugh at your mistakes or graciously accept defeat or failure, after all, anyone could be having a bad day,” says Rashmi Parmar, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry. “Stop shaming or blaming yourself after failing at a game. Avoid the urge of reminiscing over what went wrong unless you are using it in a positive way to perform better next time.”
The primary goal is to have fun, so when you’re playing a game try to avoid “being drawn into the quest” for control. Instead, Parmar says that reminding yourself you’ll have fun no matter the outcome will refocus your energy.
Play What You Like—With Friends
“Game developers want players engaged for as long and as intently as possible,” says Sobin, The Nerd Therapist. The “dopamine-hits'' are what make you feel accomplished and what keeps you playing. So the same dopamine hits you get from brain rewards can also keep you playing the game.
Sobin’s tactic for reducing anxiety while gaming is to lean into social communication. His suggestion is to build or join communities in online spaces like Discord, Reddit, and Twitch. This reduces the feeling of being alone that can come from playing solo. This doesn’t mean that solo gaming is directly attributed to anxiety—if multiplayer gaming is the cause of your anxiety, then playing solo can provide the opposite effect. It’s all about knowing yourself.
It is also important to play the games you want to so that your experience is enjoyable.
“It's natural for us to think ‘I suck’ or ‘I’m the worst’ after failing the same situation 10 or 15 times in a row, but that's (most likely) not true,” Sobin says. “Game anxiety results from a rigid set of rules.” When you’re playing a game, be mindful and listen to yourself. If you feel bored with a game, put it down. And when you’re collecting trophies and items, enjoy it, but try not to get so sucked in that you ignore the world around you.
Try Watching Games Instead
So you’ve quit a game but you still have this nagging feeling? This is what Daniel Epstein, a licensed mental health counselor at the Berman Center, calls “game shame,” or a “feeling of lowered self-worth due to negative self-talk.” Game shame is solely determined on an individual level. While some feel the need to complete a task, others are concerned about how they’ll be seen by their peers. This can increase your anxiety, and there’s a way to deal with this.
“For many, watching others play can actually bring someone’s stress levels down, provide entertainment, as well as help them learn new skills,” says Epstein. “The lowered stress associated with observing gameplay can in large part be attributed to having no risk of failure.” Watching other people play a let's play series on YouTube or Twitch can act as ASMR, providing relaxation and connection to people. I’ve rewatched let's plays and Twitch videos because they make the unknown known, and teach me the risks of a game before I play, so I can have a successful session. Older videos also bring memories of nostalgia and reduce stress because I know the outcome of the game.
But at the end of the day, there is nothing better than seeking help from licensed professionals when you’re living with game anxiety.
“Chances are you’re experiencing anxiety in real life. If you are living with anxiety or any emotional struggles, go see a professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment if needed,” says Epstein.
While there is no one way to tackle game anxiety, just knowing that you have options to manage your life is empowering. Whether you decide to take it easy, channel your feelings elsewhere, or even reach out for assistance, your feelings and anxiety around gaming are valid—and manageable.