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
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
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
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
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
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.