an orderly brain

When I am at my lowest, my brain often feels like it is pacing. Back and forth from subject to subject, worries diverting into new thoughts faster than I can process them. Sweaty palms and erratic breathing follow the inability to slow down my brain. I am mentally overloaded. Well meaning people often suggest “relaxing” activities to ease this, like coloring books, white noise, or meditation.

None of this works for me, and I end up more restless than ever, upset at myself for being unable to “turn off” and enjoy simple activities. It took me some time to recognize that my brain really needs a different approach when its close to overloading.

The answer isn’t to go simple and relaxing. It’s to do hobbies that require some strategy and organization of thought. I realized this some time ago when I found myself jonesing to play my favorite RPG, Earthbound. I know the game so well that the steps I need to take are practically memorized. I turn it on and focus immediately on strategy in battle. My brain is too busy to go off the rails worrying about things it cannot change.

Video games also reinforce other subtle positive messages. When playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I die a lot. The bold text Game Over screen is one I’m super accustomed to now. But I press a button and I get to try again, just like that. Failure isn’t permanent. It is not the end of the world. Failure is a step to success. As the game reloads, I think “I should’ve healed” or “next time, try your bow from afar instead of a melee attack” assessing my approach and making adjustments. I am learning to be better. Failure is no longer scary, it’s a normal part of progress.

Not only that, but I force my brain to think in orderly steps. A turn-based RPG like Earthbound really emphasizes your ability to choose actions each round. When I’m attacking in BOTW, it’s a quick flurry of button mashing. There’s potential for surprise attacks while you aren’t paying attention. A battle in Earthbound lets me strategize, even go back and change my mind if I need to. Breaking the battle down into its components helps me see the whole picture much clearer.

Incremental progress is an idea that I sometimes have trouble fully accepting. I tend to be very hard on myself for not completing a project, and I fail to see that my accomplishments are still valid and worthwhile. Playing video games with side quests reward me for completing each step. You caught five grasshoppers? Awesome, here is enough money to buy that equipment you need to move on to the next area. Each step ties to another, part of the bigger picture to fill in.

All these steps, even the most mundane fetch quests, have value. Experience is earned no matter what happens, which makes it such a valuable currency. Games often tally it into points, which give a very visual reminder that you are becoming stronger. Earthbound denotes this with “you levelled up” fanfare, higher stats and more hitpoints . BOTW gives you hearts. In life it’s less obvious, but the recognition of experience is still valid and important to remind us that all our small successes are just as worthwhile as big accomplishments.

Confidence often follows experience, which drives a long way toward completing a project or a quest in-game. Basically think of experience and confidence as Link’s BOTW paraglider. You can soar a long way toward your goals, but there is other work once you land.

It’s not so much “turning my brain off” as it is switching modes. Pressing reset, maybe. The more I learn about my anxiety, I find new ways to cope and outsmart my brain’s hair-trigger reactionary system. Funny that some people dismiss video games as mindless entertainment, when they are helping my brain calm down and settle.

Also, killing bokoblins in BOTW is so fucking fun.