Fighting the Dragons of Anxiety



The Horde by NathanParkArt

"The Horde" by NathanParkArt (unmodified) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0


In the Beginning

For more than a decade, I ran (and sometimes played) tabletop RPGs once a week, no matter what else was happening. I was a high-performing college student with a decent social life and my own place, so I had plenty to do but more free time. Since gaming was one of my favorite things, I was dedicated to it; since I ran for my best friends, I tried to always offer my best. Throughout my 20s and into my 30s, I had good energy levels and few health issues, so when I ran a session, I was focused and active for 8 hours or more without a problem.

Enter an Unwelcome Visitor

In my late 30s, however, something happened that I didn't foresee: I developed generalized anxiety disorder. It began with physical symptoms, which made a mental health diagnosis a surprise. But as I began experiencing more symptoms - including panic attacks - I had to admit it was really happening. I was on edge and battling intrusive, worrying thoughts often, even though I knew I was okay. I had trouble with concentration and energy levels. And it was demoralizing because I was used to doing so much so well.

Eventually, I saw that it was affecting my gaming life, as well. I struggled to focus on gaming books and it took forever for me to get through them, even when I was interested. It didn't help that my life was much busier and more challenging, so I kept getting interrupted. I'd put a book down, get sucked into other projects, forget much of what I'd read, and have to start all over again. That sapped the fun right out of it.

It was also harder for me to retain and track many "moving parts" during sessions: rules, abilities, environmentals, and so on. I struggled with juggling the intricacies of combat and narrative descriptions when I hadn't before. Since combat scenes always led to uncertainty and strain, I lost most of my enthusiasm for running battles.

Perhaps worse yet was what all of this did to my confidence. I experienced demeaning thoughts regularly. I wanted to spend more time preparing, but I just didn't have the spoons. I often walked away from sessions feeling like I'd utterly failed even when my players said they had fun and things were fine. And since I was still running for people I loved, those feelings were particularly hurtful.

What It's Like Now

I've been dealing with this for around seven years, as of 2022. Some of those years were brutal and fresh problems made adjusting even more difficult. I'm much better than I've been at my worst, thankfully, and I've worked hard for that. I've tried many methods for managing anxiety, and I've found some things that tend to help me - but sometimes, symptoms get bad for a day or so and I just have to deal with it.

While I've taken some brief breaks, I've continued gaming the whole time, even during the worst of the pandemic. Why? Because gaming is still meaningful, fun, and exciting. It's a healthy, creative release, even when I'm not feeling very healthy or creative. It helps me connect with my nearest and dearest, and it forces me to take time for myself. And so on.

Even if it's difficult at times, gaming has remained a good outlet for me and it isn't something I'm willing to give up. So I've devised strategies for handling symptoms and situations better, just as I have with other important activities. I can't say all my troubles are completely resolved because they aren't, but I can say that I've learned things of value and improved. And I know I can make things even better, which is a great way to feel.

I've also been glad to see more discussions online about how health issues and life events can impact hobbies. I've noticed a major uptick in recent years, for many reasons. Many gamers are mature adults now and facing changes they didn't foresee. Others have hit rough times that affect every facet of their lives. Some want help, and others want to know how to aid struggling friends. People are sharing their struggles openly and being met with compassion. Folks can ask for suggestions and get caring ones. And while there will always be rude people out there, we need to continue making space for these talks. That's part of what this article is for.

Because even if you think something like this can't happen to you, it can and it might, or it can affect someone else in your group. Trying to ignore symptoms might not work, or could backfire horribly. To keep your hobby healthy and fun, you might have to deal with things you'd rather not. And that's okay. With some patience, thought, and support, you can find ways to keep gaming and enjoy it more. No matter what, you deserve to enjoy a hobby that enriches your life.

Some Caveats

Please keep in mind that I'm not a psychologist, so I can't give professional advice. If you are suffering, you deserve better and should seek some kind of trained help. Ask a friend, family member, clergy member, or teacher to help you find the aid you need; you don't have to do this alone. If you need medication, temporarily or long-term, seek a reputable psychiatrist and take your meds. You're worth the effort.

It's also important for you to know that I game with people I've known for decades who are all around my age and who are very understanding. If some players aren't respecting your needs, please ask your DM for help. You might have to find a new group altogether, but you deserve a respectful group to spend your time with, and good people are out there.

Furthermore, I don't run for money or with the intent to publish for profit. I also don't record our sessions or aim to broadcast them, so I don't deal with the pressures that come with monetizing gameplay. If you're feeling the added weight of public scrutiny, you should look for others in the same position and ask for their advice.

I'm also not a master of handling anxiety; I'm a practicing student. But I like to think I've learned a few things worth passing on.

What I've Tried

With all of this in mind, I'd like to share some things that have helped me reduce stress and keep gaming. The first step is to analyze your situation. Which problems interfere the most? Then, decide on one or two methods to address the worst issue. Use them during a few sessions and be honest about the results. What you come up with might not work right away, all the time, or at all. That's okay; you can always try something else. This isn't magic, so things probably won't turn around overnight, but when you find strategies that work, you'll start to feel better more often.

Keeping your spirits up is important to the process, and being flexible is vital. But one of the most important things is to be understanding and caring to yourself and your group. You're human, and humans change. Adapting to new circumstances isn't always easy or comfortable but it can be done. And just because things aren't what you'd like them to be doesn't mean they have to be bad. You can always do better than you expect, but it helps if you accept that you're doing your best and things can improve.

Adjust Your Expectations

First things first: it's not the end of the world if you're not The Best Roleplayer or GM EVAR, and if you're not at your best all the time. Expecting to blow everyone's minds each session isn't realistic and will probably make things worse. You'll try to spend more energy to reach that height and could feel a lot more disappointed if or when you don't.

Remember that it's good to play or run at all. If you need to hold back on a scene, that's okay. If you need to take a break, do it. If you forget something, check your notes, ask for help, or just keep going. It probably won't impact much and if need be, you can retcon it later (if the group is okay with that, of course). It's also important to find a patient and understanding group. You should be able to admit you're not feeling well or need help without harsh responses.

This is the practice I struggle with the most. I tend to have extremely high standards and expectations of myself. I've been able to do great things before and want to do so again. But it's not fair to ruin my enjoyment by demanding so much of myself. I can do well and we can have fun regardless, and people keep coming back for more. So I'm determined to focus on more realistic goals and the little victories.

Ask for Positive Feedback

If you have problems feeling good about yourself as a player or GM, ask your group for honest, positive feedback. Ask what you did well or what others enjoyed in your performance at the table. It's also okay to tell your group that you need a little boost of confidence. This doesn't mean you should expect lavish praise every session or that everyone in the group will have something to say. But you should be able to hope for small reminders that you can do things well from someone and be willing to return the favor.

I do this regularly, and it tends to help me walk away feeling better about the session. Positive comments also combat any worries that might be starting to gnaw at me.  

Be Aware of Your Environment

Do you fight to stay awake when you finally get around to gaming stuff? Sure, you could just be tired. If you can take a short nap, go for it. But it could also be that your environment is working against you. Maybe you need some kind of background noise to keep you alert. Perhaps you should stand up for a while or take a brief walk before digging in. Caffeine can heighten anxiety, so it might not be the best thing to rely on to feel awake and centered.

Do you listen to music or shows as you play, read, or prep? Some of us don't focus well in quiet surroundings, and familiar sounds can be comforting. If you're able to get in the groove and get things done, then your choice is working well for you. But if the noise derails your attention regularly, it's not helping. Switch genres, try another medium, or turn everything off; some quiet after being overstimulated could be soothing. If you're having problems with sensory issues during sessions, ask your DM about changes that can help you.

Be Mindful of Distractions

Are you scrolling through social media or playing other games when you're at a tabletop session? That could be a sign that your heart really isn't in it at the moment. It's okay to do something else instead; you can come back to it later, and even a 10 minute break can make a difference. You could also be trying to avoid bored or anxious feelings, which might help for short periods. But if multitasking leads to negative experiences - such as losing track of what's going on or feeling frustrated that you're not getting things done - then it's time to admit that it's working against you and needs to be changed.

In general, you want to enjoy your hobby and concentrate on it. If you struggle and feel upset every time you engage in it, however, you're probably going to start dreading and avoiding it. So troublesome patterns need to be disrupted. You can try putting down your phone or closing your laptop until it's needed for a gaming-related reason. Give your hands something else to do that doesn't take much focus, like playing with a fidget device. If you're distracting yourself because you're bored during sessions, talk with the DM about getting more spotlight time. Develop agendas for your character to pursue.

I struggle with this because I have old habits of splitting my attention to get more done, but I've noticed that when I resist those urges, I feel better, more invested, and more successful.

Break Up Your Approach

I rarely have long chunks of time during the week to devote to gaming anymore, so I take smaller chunks of time instead. Will I read a book, develop a campaign idea, or update a character I'm playing? I figure out the goal when I get there. But this has helped me get more done consistently, and it could help you, too. Seize the slower moments in your week. If you're more alert and alone in the morning, take some time then. If something comes up and you have to switch tasks, hopefully you'll get another opportunity later.

You can also apply this concept to your sessions. If you need to play or run for fewer hours, or if you need to take a break from gaming entirely, say so. If you want to game on a particular day so you have more energy, arrange for that. If you don't feel up to running social, exploration, and combat scenes in one session, put something off. If you're too tired to award experience points or update a character sheet at the end of a session, it can wait.

Just make a note of things you want to get around to, and keep your notes where you'll remember to look at them when you're in a better position.

Start a Gaming To-Do List

Speaking of notes: starting a to-do list just for gaming tasks could be worthwhile. There are various apps and sites for saving task lists, or you could bring out one of those nice journals you've been hoarding and use it. They don't have to be long and involved; as long as you can understand your note, you're good. Keep your list in a place where you'll remember to consult it, and remove or strike out tasks as you complete them. It might give you a lift to see all the old tasks you've finished, but if the list gets too crowded for comfort, delete the old entries or start a new list entirely.

I've worked with lists a lot. I tried different digital to-do lists but found that I kept forgetting about them, so I'm back to writing them by hand in a notebook that I keep with me. But I'm getting more done and feel more confident, so I feel good about it.

Take Notes

One thing that's helped me a lot is taking notes and having someone else take notes while I run. I take notes on gaming books as if I were studying for a class. I either type short ideas or copy and paste brief pieces of information into a document. I keep my notes digital so I can search for what I need by keyword and edit them easily in the future. This helps me remember a bit more, and if I can't recall what I need, I can look it up swiftly.

A benefit of this method is that as long as you play that game, your notes will be useful. Even though it takes a little more time to get through books, you'll have boiled down everything to the essentials. If you don't have the book on hand, you can just bring up your notes. And you can add whatever you want to them as needed.

Having a player take notes at each session also helps a great deal. I offer some extra experience points (or some other small benefit) for this service and am deeply grateful for it. Hopefully, someone in your group is willing to do the task; you might have to rotate between people to keep from burning them out. But this helps everyone remember more details and is great for longer campaigns (which I prefer).

Try Less Crunchy Systems

If you try different strategies for recalling and handling rules and still feel frustrated, it's probably time to reconsider the system you're playing. Please don't feel like this is a cop-out or a sign that you're stupid or lazy. Many health issues interfere with short and long-term memory. Turbulent times in life can have the same effect. You shouldn't have to struggle constantly just to keep up appearances, and you don't have to run or play complicated games to be a good gamer.

Tabletop RPGs vary widely in complexity, for many reasons. They also vary widely in price, and there are a decent number of free games around online. There's bound to be a system out there that hits the sweet spot for you. It could take some time to find the right one, but there are places online where you can ask for recommendations and kind folks will oblige you. And you don't have to give up on an ongoing campaign; you can convert it to an easier system, probably without much trouble at all.

It's kind of funny. When I first started playing tabletop RPGs, the game was set in the World of Darkness, but heavily modified. We hardly ever used the system. We didn't need dice. We just referred to my sheet to see what my character could probably pull off. My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I trusted each other and had a hell of a lot of fun.

For our one-on-one campaigns, we've largely reverted back to that method, and it's been great. When we play with our long-time group members, we call for fewer rolls. I'm hoping to run D&D 5e for the first time sometime soon without feeling swamped by rules and details. We'll see how it goes. All I know is I'm more inspired, having more fun, and glad that I gave up thinking of gaming like some competition I had to be the best at. I want to focus less on what system I'm using and more on how the magic happens, regardless of mechanics.


I hope to add more to this list as I experiment. If you have successful strategies that you've tried, I'd love to hear about them! If you know a supportive community online, let me know how to find them. And if you're struggling, know that you're not alone, you can enjoy gaming again, and you can feel better.



Back to Top ^

Resources are free for personal use; please do not offer them for sale or claim them as your own work.

Please do not repost material elsewhere; link to this site instead. Thank you, and happy gaming!