Playing Video Games When Depressed

There are a slew of studies that have showcased a connection between aggression in adolescents and playing violent video games (most studies have shown it to be short-term aggression, and no causalities in terms of causing real world violence). However, what about a link between playing video games and depression? While the consensus seems to be that playing video games can make depression worse, the true answer isn’t so easy.

A study performed by Susan Tortorello et. al explored this possibility and found that adolescents playing violent video games for 2+ hours a day seemed to exacerbate depressive symptoms like lacking interest in pleasure activities, feeling low energy and self worth, and increasing suicidal ideations. Test subjects were evaluated with the Major Depressive Disorder Scale of the DISC Predictive Scales (for more information on what the test evaluates, click here). The subjects studied were compared to adolescents playing non-violent video games for less than two hours a day. Another study explored whether excessive gaming is caused by psychological health disorders or simply correlated. Further studies need to be done to find an answer.

While these two studies show positive relations to video games and poor mental health, they do not make conclusions on the topic, and more data needs to be collected in order to strengthen this position, and develop tried and true action strategies that will help those in need.

Ask anyone who plays video games as to why they play, and the general answer could range from “it’s fun” to “it makes me feel better” or “it helps me relieve stress and anxiety.” Engaging in any social and fun activity is well known to decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms, and serve to shut out negative emotions for a time. However, as we all should know, these activities don’t serve as a cure for depression, only as a way to suppress it temporarily.

Increasing our time with these activities can lead us down a bad path. Dr. Alok Konojia, a well known psychologist that studies video games’ affect on the human mind, terms this feeling alexithymia, which is a Greek term that is loosely defined as “no words for emotion.” The more we tend to play video games as a coping mechanism and as a way to suppress negative emotions, the more likely we aren’t able to process emotion and understand our own internal psychological state.

The World Health Organization already determined video game addiction as a medical disorder, and we know why. Playing and succeeding in video games can result in increasing dopamine release in our brains, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for arousal and feelings of elation and happiness. This quest for dopamine release can become addicting (like gambling and smoking for instance), especially to depressed individuals having trouble seeking pleasure in day to day activities, work, social life, and other avenues. If you’re already experiencing depressive and anxious feelings and emotions, getting caught in this trap can be dangerous to your psychological health. This cycle is hard to break once in too deep.

Playing video games while depressed can be more hurtful than helpful. While the benefits of playing video games recreationally are numerous (like joining social communities, developing problem solving and focus skills, etc.), there are also detriments. This could lead to lack of self-care, shutting yourself out from social environments, failing in your academics, or professional career, and worsening your personal relationships with others.

It’s not all bad, however! The good news is that when balanced properly, playing video games can be our way out of depression. One study found a link between playing action-oriented video games and reverse cognitive deficits often times found in depressed individuals. Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently found that playing video games helped those with PTSD and substance abuse problems. Coupling video games with therapy and other mental health treatments can benefit us greatly. While we can suffer with depressive symptoms like lacking joy in day-to-day activities, video games can help give us a sense of purpose and goal-oriented mindsets.

Balancing violent video games versus non-violent video games can help ease our mental state as well, as aggressiveness in game play has been shown to increase our anxieties and negative emotions. Sitting down to play a non-violent video game like a “walking simulator,” simulation games like The Sims, Tycoon-style games, and more can help quiet our active minds and help us process through the negative emotions that can plague us. Even if those are not your types of games, playing an action-oriented game and being in touch with your emotional states while they happen can help our psychological health in many ways.

What are some ways that you use video games to help you cope and relieve depression, or do you feel it hurts you more than it helps? Let’s discuss it in the comments, or head on over to our Discord using the link here, or the QR code at the bottom of the page. We should all be here to help each other.

You do not need to suffer alone. If you find yourself using video games as a sole coping mechanism for depression, we encourage you to seek the help of a therapist. Psychology Today is a great resource to find a therapist in your area that can help you. If you are feeling thoughts of suicidal ideations, call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.

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