I believe that video games cause more anxiety than people realize. I also think that playing video games regularly for years can drive chronic anxiety, otherwise known as hyperarousal. After years of frantic button pressing and thousands of “digital deaths,” the fight or flight branch of the nervous system can be turned up relative to the resting and digesting branch resulting in what researchers call “sympathetic dominance” and “autonomic dysregulation.”
Videogames have been shown to increase stress hormone levels, bolster aggressive affect, and reduce prosocial behavior. Most of my friends who play video games act breathless and panicked afterward, driving them to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol during gaming breaks. Playing an hour of competitive, online “deathmatches” would strip almost anyone of their composure. Over time, this undermines emotional balance. In my twenties I didn’t realize that loud, violent entertainment was turning me into the stereotype of the high-strung geek.
This blog post describes how and why videogames can negatively affect us and how to address it.
Video Games Can Create Stress
Most video games create suspenseful situations in which players must react quickly to keep their character from being hurt or killed. The simulated danger and time pressure recruits fast-acting areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and basal ganglia, to help perform the hazardous button pressing. These unconscious brain areas don’t know they are just playing a game. They assume the actions are dire, and so involuntarily activate the stress system. This is why playing real-time video games can be emotionally draining. Each reduction in the character’s life bar results in the release of stress hormones and an acceleration of your heartbeat. In this way, every play session contributes ever so slightly to one’s background hum of anxiety.
Despite your full attention and best efforts, you watch as your character is torn to shreds before your eyes. Seeing your character die and having to start a level from the beginning over and over is frustrating. This acute stress is the reason many people act like they are going to throw the controller after a loss. Are you having trouble seeing how a game can be traumatic? Just watch the expressions of a toddler or an elderly person as they play and you will see how negative an experience it can be.
Even game developers have long recognized that games produce stress. In fact, the Japanese version of the video game that ended up becoming super Mario Bros 2 in the United States was originally titled “Heartbeat Panic” in Japanese. And today we play more games than ever. Globally people play more than three billion hours of videogames every week. In America digital media consumes around 11 hours of the average person’s day. Gaming disorder is a recognized mental health issue.
But stress feels bad, wouldn’t we recognize this and stop playing? Well.. Because of the way our dopamine systems work, we have a tendency to seek out overstimulation. We are willing to engage in upsetting interactions as long as they produce novelty and reward. Seeing the new graphics, interacting with a pixelated world, and beating the levels produces lots of reward. Drug addicts are willing to destroy their bodies for the same reason, because the dopamine rush is incredibly psychologically compelling. Like an addict, we can become hooked on the dopamine and adrenaline produced by games. The fleeting thrills cause us to ignore the persistent, low-level panic.
Playing Video Games Pushes us Into Distressed Breathing
When most people play video games, they tense their respiratory diaphragm, immobilizing it. This pushes them from breathing diaphragmatically into distressed breathing. During distressed breathing the diaphragm is held in partial contraction and the thoracic muscles of the chest do the work of breathing. This places the diaphragm muscle in a state of partial contraction which, over time, causes it to become stiff and frail.
I created a system called Program Peace that you can access entirely for free at www.programpeace.com. There you can learn about how to optimize your breathing pattern and then combine optimal breathing with other exercises and activities. You can then combine optimal breathing with videogame playing and detraumatize your orientation toward it.
The best way to counteract distressed breathing and engage the diaphragm is to belly breathe. As you inhale, imagine the diaphragm emerging from the bottom of your ribs and pushing down on the contents of your belly. This should cause your belly to protrude outward. It also helps to breathe long, deep, slow breaths through your nose. Whenever you are playing video games it is important to be aware of your breath and not to let it become too shallow. While you increase your awareness of your breathing as you play video games, you should have dozens of breakthrough moments where, little by little, you are able to encourage your diaphragm to participate more in the effort of inhalation.
At a certain level, when we play video games, we assume that if we don’t breathe shallowly, we are putting our character in danger. It takes time and effort to counteract this. If you convince yourself that it is safe to breath deeply while you play, you can totally transform your psychological orientation toward the game.
Extending the duration of your breath can help too. Using a paced breathing app like the one I created, Program Peace, can help you do this. While on your couch, pull out your paced breathing app, dim the screen, and override your tendency to breathe shallowly. While you witness the character experience peril, breathe long, slow breaths. You will be amazed by how this allows you to detach from and become desensitized to the nail-biting worriment.
If you are playing video games while breathing 2 second inhalation and 2 second exhalations you are going to be traumatized by them. If you can extend your breaths to 5 second inhalations and 7 second exhalations trauma cannot enter the equation. Performing paced breathing while engaging in these activities is an excellent way to learn to retain your composure as you are inundated. If you practice, you will get to the point where you can breathe through your nose at five breaths per minute in a digital firefight.
Playing Video Games Creates Tension in Our Bodies
But it is not just your diaphragm that you brace when you play video games. It is also your face, voice box, spine, digestive tract, and genitals. Any muscles that are braced for long periods of time become stuck in partial contraction causing pain and accelerated aging. So, while you play, it is very important to be aware of your tension patterns and to try to sense the state of your breath, heart, and gut. Let them relax.
Many people have terrible posture when they play games. They breathe through their mouth, sneer, startle, raise their eyebrows, curve their lower backs, and hunch their necks. This bad posture causes tension – tension that is often held for hours at a time. Moreover, as you hold the controller (as with your phone or keyboard), most of your major postural muscles are completely braced and immobilized. This is why it is important to be aware of your posture, take regular gaming breaks, and if those include stretching, all the better.
Reducing the Volume of Your TV Can Reduce the Stress Response
Many studies have shown that merely reducing television volume can vastly reduce the sympathetic stress response to violent videos and games. In general, the louder the TV, the more frequently and intensely the amygdala is triggered, and the more cortisol is released. Turn your speakers down a few decibels, and you should notice that you feel far less uneasy after a play session.
Real Exercise Can Counteract the Stress Caused by Video Games
Overstimulating media tricks our bodies into thinking we are preparing for tremendous amounts of exercise, even though we usually consume it while sitting on our backsides. Rather than stewing in them, use up your stress hormones by engaging in physical activity. Decades of research have shown that regular exercise is one of the best ways to counteract stress.
Video Games Cause Us to Startle and Tremble
When you trip while walking, it is usually because you didn’t see the uneven surface on the ground. It came out of nowhere. For a few seconds your heart races and your adrenaline spikes as you try to recover from the fall without injuring yourself. Whenever threats come out of nowhere, as they do in videogames, they cause us to startle. The more time you spend startling, the stronger your startle response becomes. Startle plays a key role in fear and anxiety, and it also increases trembling. Now that I am middle aged, it has become very clear to me that I startle and tremble after playing video games.
Startle is also a sign that your adrenal glands have released adrenaline. Elevated levels of adrenaline cause the stress hormone cortisol to go up. Elevated cortisol is caustic to the body and has negative repercussions for most of the cells in your body. It also contributes to a large number of diseases and disorders. Cortisol also increases hair loss, greying, and premature aging in general. There is also good reason to assume that the startling and anxiety caused by video games, could over time, decrease testosterone (lowering muscle mass and assertiveness), and serotonin (lowering confidence and increasing susceptibility to depression).
We Weren’t Designed to Play Videogames
Our bodies were not built for video games. Traditional hunter-gatherers had exceptionally low stimulation levels 95% of the time. They were out in nature all day. Today, we plug into many streams of overstimulation that were designed to assault our senses. Our ancestors would not have had access to movies, television, and video games and so they would’ve been forced to spend more time in relative boredom, where they were fully exposed to any unease in their bodies. Having this exposure allowed them to confront any anxiety, negotiate with it, and subdue it. We on the other hand, use chaotic media to try to drown it out.
A hunter gather should be able to go through their day in a state of flow where they’re not making mistakes and they’re not constantly getting adverse feedback from their world. To be happy, confident, and healthy we need to give our body the signals and cues that tell it that we are capable of getting through our day without upsetting impediments. We want our bodies to feel like winning is easy for us. Our cells and the DNA within them listen to environmental inputs and use them to determine our level of relaxation or upset. But inevitably our cells will interpret the feedback that we get from video games as negative.
When we are fighting another character on screen and taking damage randomly, we are not actually experiencing pain, but clearly things are going wrong in our world. When you are hit by simulated gunfire hundreds of times every week, your body is likely to assume that things are not working out well for you. Your body assumes that you don’t have much control of your world because intractable, flich-inducing situations keep popping up unexpectedly.
Video games prove to our body that we’re not able to go into a relaxed state of flow. This, as a way of life, does not support confidence, elegance, dominance, or power. Rather it causes the unconscious motor systems of the brain (such as the basal ganglia) to assume that they must be continually failing. Every time your health bar is decremented they assume that they have not learned the right motor patterns to master the tasks necessary for survival. When they feel like they are failing they assume that the only way is to use anxiety and stress to power through.
It Can Help to Go Cold Turkey
Once I realized that video games were strongly adversely affecting me around my late 20s, I stopped playing fighting and shooting games altogether. I cut my videogame playing down from two to three hours a week to less than ten minutes and I only played nonviolent games. I was still interested in games from a creative and technological standpoint, so I mostly just watched friends play.
Ten years later in 2021, Grand Theft Auto Trilogy the Definitive Edition came out and I felt compelled to beat the games. They were heavily nostalgic, I loved the colors, locales, and music and I was strongly motivated to finish the story missions so that I could unlock all of the maps. I beat GTA Vice City in 12 hours, and then spent several hours getting through San Andreas. I could feel the games taking a toll. Lots of shooting, lots of deaths, lots of being forced to restart frustrating missions from the beginning. I wanted to get over it, but I felt compelled to finish what I had started.
I woke up early one Saturday morning after only two hours of sleep and all I could think about was finishing GTA San Andreas. I wanted to get it out of the way so I could get back to my life. I calculated that I could finish the remaining 15 missions in four hours and decided to crawl out of bed and try. I ended up having to play 12 hours straight just to get to the final mission. I did it without sleeping and without any food at all. I spent all twelve hours trying to monitor my bracing patterns, and breathe diaphragmatically, while I analyzed the game’s effect on my breathing. By the end of the first hour I was breathing 5 breaths per minute. However, it wasn’t until about 10 hours in that I began genuine belly breathing for the first time while playing a video game. It was a great experience and may have strengthened my ability to belly breathe under stress. But it also had lasting repercussions. It was mildly traumatic for me. My mind was racing, my gut was aching, and I startled and trembled slightly for weeks. I also stuttered and had trouble looking people in the eye for a few days.
After that experience I would recommend that people not play while sleep deprived, not play while fasting, and not play for more than a couple of hours at a time. It is also worth mentioning that studies show that violent media before bed can increase stress hormone levels, so I would also recommend that you stop playing at least two hours before bed time.
Use the Play/Challenge Mindset not the Fight/Threat Mindset
Another important thing to mention is your mindset. Mice that wrestle each other can become stronger and happier if they interpret the wrestling as play. But if they interpret it as fighting, their stress levels can shoot through the roof. Interpret the conflict as rough and tumble play and you are much less likely to be traumatized by it. Studies have shown that when you take something as play it changes the nature of the stress response from the “threat response” to the “challenge response” which is much healthier for the mind and body. Look it up. I believe that some people’s limbic systems are more likely to respond to intense media stimulation with the challenge response, but I think most respond to them with the threat response. Mine certainly does.
When mammals are playful they’re not concerned about reputation, they’re not concerned about getting hurt, they’re not concerned about making an enemy, they’re learning, enjoying themselves, exerting themselves, and bonding. When mammals play they are also more likely to breathe diaphragmatically and less likely to engage in distressed breathing. Another reason why breathing deeply can help.
Play Peaceful/Nonviolent Video Games
Game designers should create more games that encourage a state of flow but do not constantly punish players using arbitrary rules. In many games, you can reduce the difficulty setting. But many major game developers avoid creating a “freeplay” or “creative” mode because they are concerned that if the game is not challenging enough, they will lose sales. This is unfortunate. Every game should have a punish-free setting, and digital worlds should be places to relax, explore, and fantasize. Nonviolent, friendly videogames do exist, though, and many are worth trying.
Here are some fun, nonviolent games that I recommend:
Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tours
The Turing Test
Captain Toad Treasure Tracker
Spirit of the North
These games are more likely to put us into a healthy state of flow and stimulate dopamine without stimulating cortisol and the startle response.
Taking up videogames is not enough to give the average person an anxiety disorder, but it is enough to mildly and noticeably increase anxiety. And remember, anxiety is a ratchet. This means the effects are cumulative. It is easy to become more anxious, but difficult to become less anxious, so why would you want to expose yourself to anything that is anxiogenic?
The intense stimulation of video games can cause us to completely disregard the panic signals our body is sending us. Instead, pay attention to them. Start with the breath. As you play, gain awareness of your breath. Try to breathe slowly and deeply with your belly and through your nose. Breathe long breaths that last for more than five seconds. And stay aware of any unnecessary bracing that is going on for too long. Let it go, relax, and have fun.