Trigger warning for anxiety and other mental health conditions.
First of all, I just want to say that anxiety is only one of many, many mental health conditions that can affect anyone. If anything in this post hits a nerve, then take a break. At the bottom of the post I’ll put some links to helpful groups that can give you some guidance if you feel like you need it. The reason I chose anxiety specifically is because it’s the only one that I have experience with and I wouldn’t feel right trying to talk about something that I’ve had no experience dealing with. So, according to the most up-to-date data I can find, an estimated 275 million people have anxiety disorders. This can vary from 2.5-6% depending on the country but it’s roughly 4% of the world’s population and tends to affect women (62%) more than men. With that in mind, let’s talk.
Anxiety is tough. Really tough. Everyone will have had different experiences with it but, for me personally, it’s darkened a lot of days, some of which should have been the best days of my life. I missed most of my son’s first birthday, I was incapacitated for the majority of my wedding day and I’ve had to spend more than one Christmas sitting quietly on the sidelines. At my worst, I spent every day feeling like I was about to collapse on the floor for at least 18 months.
I saw my GP because of all the physical symptoms that I was experiencing, thinking it was something to do with blood pressure or sugar levels or whatever else made the slightest bit of sense to me. So they ran some tests. Clear. All clear. Every single one came back fine with no insight at all to what I was going through.
My doctor suggested Anxiety. At first I thought it was absurd, anxiety couldn’t make me feel this way, surely? My head was swimming, my stomach felt like it was being torn in half and most of the time I couldn’t even stand up straight. More tests. Nothing. So I looked into the symptoms for Anxiety and it was like reading a list of everything that I was feeling. So I kept going to work and tried to look at the causes of my anxiety, what I could do to avoid them or at least lessen the impact.
In comes Dungeons & Dragons. It was a game that I’d wanted to play my whole life but could never find anyone else interested enough to actually play it with me. But there was one person. My wife. So we tried to find some other people to play with and the whole time I was freaking out about whether or not I could do it. Strangers. New game with new rules. ROLEPLAYING. We found out that our local game store let patrons use their space to play. Every other week on Wednesday nights. I could do that, one social situation, every two weeks, doing something I genuinely wanted to do.
So we signed up and got stuck in. The first session was fun, albeit terrifying, but I made it to the end and I wasn’t the only first-timer. The second session was a bit more comfortable and I had fun. The third session was…good. I was more comfortable with the other players and I got stuck in to adventuring a bit more. I was still a little anxious when I got there but I soon relaxed. Eating my way through a whole bunch of sweets helped keep me distracted long enough and when I realised that I’d done this 3 times now and nothing bad had happened it gave me a little confidence boost.
Now I run my own sessions for a group of friends and spend my free time creating storylines that I’m genuinely excited to watch people play through. I even do voices. Yep. That’s right, I do voices, terrible or not, it doesn’t matter. I felt like I was going to die the first time I did it but it gets a little easier every time.
There it is. No secrets, no tips or special tricks. Just do your best and remind yourself that it WILL get better. If you can find something that you want to do badly enough that you’re willing to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, then go for it. If you’re anything like me, after the first couple times, it won’t seem so bad, then eventually, it’ll be second nature. Finding someone to do it with you, a family member or a close friend, will make it easier. However, if you’re doing it solo, then you’ve got this, have some faith in yourself.
In terms of how this all relates to tabletop gaming and the various anxiety-inducing moments it involves…take it slow. Most groups will do their best to support you if they know what you’re going through just by showing up. If you’re not comfortable roleplaying or even talking too much, that’s fine. You showed up. That’s good enough. Maybe next session you’ll interact with another player or even just an NPC. Then next session, you’ll do it in-character, not with a voice, just in the first-person. Voices take a big leap of confidence so only do it when you’re ready, when you’re comfortable around the people at the table. Besides, who ever said your character in this campaign doesn’t sound exactly like you? What a coincidence!
Most importantly, remember that you’re not alone. Focus on you. Focus on the people around you. They will help you and support you. Talking is absolutely the hardest part but if you can do that, even once, you’ll open up a huge support network from people who want to help, whether they’ve known you for years or you’ve only just met. People want to help you, they really do, but they can’t if they don’t know that you need their help.
Lastly, if you really don’t think you can manage an in-person group, try an online session. Roll20 is your friend. You can communicate purely through the chat screen if you want, you don’t need to be seen or heard if that’s what you’re worried about. That’s valid, I’m not a fan of cameras either. Apps like Role Gate were made for that. You could even make a group that uses a Discord chat to run the campaign. This is especially helpful if you’ve got a bit of an erratic schedule. Basically, if you can pinpoint what makes you panic and what’s holding you back, find a way around it. There’s always a way.
Be brave, be strong, adventure on. Go show those goblins who’s boss!