Video Games and Mental Health

Video game usage is getting more attention in the mental health world these days, with the World Health Organization now considering a diagnosis for Video Game Disorder. For those interested, here’s the latest story…

As a therapist who happens to enjoy a good gaming session, I appreciate the benefits that video games offer when it comes to fun and escapism. But I’ve also met a lot of young people with anxiety issues who have taken to using video games as their go-to avoidance strategy, to the point that they are gaming nearly non-stop when at home. If you are someone (or the parent/guardian of someone) who is struggling with an anxiety issue and also playing excessive amounts of video games, you may need to reduce that gaming time if you want to start feeling better. This is true for 2 reasons:

1. If you are gaming, you are not exposing yourself to your triggers/fears. You are not socializing (face to face), you are not going out in public, you are not exercising, you are not completing homework, you are not facing your contamination fears. This avoidance is allowing your anxiety and OCD to stick around (and probably making it worse).

2. If you are gaming, your mind is not processing anything that is happening in your life. To overcome OCD and anxiety, it is essential that you provide your brain with the opportunity to “re-learn” that you are safe and not in danger. Essentially, you have to “notice” what is going on around you. When you have a helpful therapy session, for example, and immediately go home and play X-Box or Playstation, you are depriving your brain of critical learning time. As a result, you are neutralizing the effectiveness of therapy.

If you’ve noticed that your video game usage has become something more than just a fun activity, it might be time to address the issue, particularly if you are trying to overcome an anxiety issue. This won’t be easy, but here are some suggestions to get you started.

1. Consider getting help from a mental health professional. Whether you are an adult gamer who has fallen into a pervasive routine of avoidance, or a parent who needs to intervene in your child’s excessive gaming, you’re going to need some support, and there’s no shame in that.

2. Identify the current pattern. Notice the current hours/day of video game time. Are there specific games that are more of a time-suck than others? Notice all of the things you are not doing: going outside, getting your driver’s permit, looking for a job, applying to college, exercising, catching up on schoolwork, playing music, reading, cooking, taking steps to achieve your goals. Notice the different ways your gaming habit is helping and/or hurting you.

3. Set some short-term goals that include reducing your gaming time and increasing your engagement with other aspects of life. You don’t have to completely stop playing games, just set limits on your playing. Maybe only play during certain hours. Maybe stop a particular game. Make more plans that get you out of the house. For younger gamers who don’t see the point in reducing their gaming, it may be necessary for parents to take greater control of the video game devices in the home, including consoles, Ipads, phones, and computers. In extreme cases, you may have to confiscate controllers and power cords, or disconnect the internet. If you need to take these more drastic steps, make sure you share your plans with your child so they can anticipate it coming. You may also need to be ready for any meltdowns that might occur when you take back control.

4. Lastly. Celebrate your small successes along the way. Stopping a habit is really hard work. Make sure you do something to reward yourself!