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.