How a Video Game Helped Me Recover From a Real Trauma
I have a long history of anxiety. As far as I can remember, my first panic attack was in kindergarten. Naturally, I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but it was a pretty terrifying experience. Over the next twenty years, I went through a series of highs and lows. Sometimes I would be okay, with only the mild panic attack here and there (and generally for reasons that made sense like giving a speech), but other times I would be a colossal mess.
The worst was in eleventh grade. I started having brutal panic attacks on a daily basis. I would sit in the guidance counselor’s or nurse’s office for sometimes up to two hours. I was even sent home on a number of occasions.
My first job didn’t go any better. I didn’t know it at the time, but running away when I felt anxious was actually making my anxiety worse.
Agoraphobia is the fear of symptom attacks, which extends to the places/circumstances that you were in while having the attack. By avoiding the classroom or workstation, I was feeding into the irrational fear that those places were dangerous, and I eventually fell into a rut where I couldn’t go anywhere without having a panic attack.
So naturally, learning how to drive a car wasn’t difficult at all. (That was a joke.) Actually it was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t even have control over myself—and now there I was trying to be in control of a heavy machine that could easily kill me or someone else.
I didn’t like driving very much.
While the rest of my anxiety continued to be up and down, with the periods where I felt fine getting longer and the periods of feeling terrible shorter and less severe, my fear of driving (or really of getting into an accident) never really went away. I had a panic attack basically every time I had to drive somewhere I hadn’t previously driven to. It could literally be up the street. I could have even driven passed it a million times. It did not matter. If I hadn’t been to that specific spot previously, I was terrified of driving there.
Over time and many commutes to and from college on the weekends later, I was feeling pretty good about driving. So naturally, I got into my first car accident. (And so far only. God help me.) Time seemed to slow as I turned and saw the other car barreling toward me, horn blaring. My shoulders sank and I sighed heavily before feeling the impact of a mini van pushing my poor little sedan about ten feet and turning my car a good 180 degrees. The whole thing only took one and a half seconds but felt much longer. But in the course of that one or maybe two seconds, all my progress regarding my anxiety disappeared. I was back to square one.
For the next several nights, I would lie in bed, shaking violently as I relived what happened over and over again. I walked with a limp for a couple weeks, but after that I was completely healed physically. However, mentally I remained shattered for months. I was terrified of driving again. Every time I would try to drive, I would envision what had happened as well as all the things that could happen. I’d wince and jerk as if the accident I just pictured in my mind really did occur.
After dealing with anxiety for years, and recovering from many irrational fears, I knew the best method to recovery, for me at least, was re-exposure to the thing I was so frightened of. But I figured my insurance company would not appreciate weekly phone calls from me to let them know I smashed into another tree/drove off another hill into a ditch/went flying through another storefront window. So I considered my options for re-exposure limited at best. Eventually I just resigned to my fate of never be 100% better. Time became my best friend, and as more of it past the better I felt. I still occasionally envisioned myself getting smashed by another car, but it was less frequent and I was able to shake it off quickly. I figured I would just be at 99% for the rest of my life.
Then I bought a video game called Dirt Rally along with a steering wheel and pedals I could hook up to my PlayStation 4. Rally driving is a competitive sport focusing on speed above all else. You drive down dangerous, narrow roads and try to get the best time. Dirt Rally is easily one of the hardest games I have ever played. To say I’m terrible at it would be an understatement. I crash a lot. Like a lot. I’ve crashed into trees. I’ve crashed into boulders. I’ve crashed into boulders, bounced off and collided into a tree. I’ve gone flying off mountains into the abyss. And my car has rolled over and spun around more times than I can count. Let it be known this game answers the question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object!
And I’m happy about all of it. I have the game’s camera set so I’m viewing all these accidents like I am actually in the car. At first I would wince and get a bit upset, but I kept playing because I’m stubborn. Eventually it got to the point where the accident itself didn’t upset me but rather I was annoyed I now had to restart the race for the millionth time.
In fact, after playing this game for only a couple weeks I noticed I no longer got afraid while actually driving. I could get to where I needed to be without picturing a van coming out of nowhere and smashing me off the road. For the first time in my life, I could approach driving as something that was not inherently scary. Sure there are scary moments now and then, no one likes driving along and all of a sudden a freaking deer is running across the road, but the point is that I can drive without being scared of what might happen.
And with the introduction of virtual reality, I wonder if the technology could be used to help others overcome their own fears. For instance, perhaps a VR experience could be created to help people with claustrophobia or glossophobia (fear of public speaking). Games have been used as a form of therapy for decades, both by doctors and general people who find comfort in a game without knowing the scientific reason why.
A racing game helped me overcome a trauma I never thought I would fully recover from. Perhaps other games can help with different forms of traumas and general anxiety. As games become more lifelike and virtual reality reaches more people, I suspect the role they play in therapy will only grow. But in the mean time, I’m going to continue to drive down virtual roads at high speeds hoping I won’t smack into that same freaking pole I’ve already hit a hundred thousand times.
The above was my own personal experiences. Please talk to a professional before you start driving virtual cars into virtual trees thinking that’s all you need to get better.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.