Dungeons & Dragons is Good for My Mental Health

Illo by Candice

NOTE: I am not a licensed therapist or psychologist. This essay is about my personal experience with D&D and how much it has helped my struggles. I believe everyone should go to therapy if they can. D&D is not a replacement for therapy, but I think it has great mental health benefits. Please speak to a professional if you can. Take care of yrself 💖.

I have not been playing Dungeons & Dragons long. In more geologic timeframes, I am a newbie, a bandwagon-hopper who took an interest thanks to a well-crafted podcast and streams on Geek & Sundry. This, the 5th edition, is my first real experience with tabletop role-playing games in general. It is definitely one of those hobbies that once I started, it felt like something I’d been doing forever.

Over a year in and hundreds of hours of Dungeons & Dragons under my belt, I’m a different (better) person. D&D has been wonderful for my mental health. Roleplaying has taught me lessons about interpersonal relationships that will stick with me forever. Thanks to this game where I pretend to be a teenage dragon who loves crystals and communing with nature, I’m more confident, willing to take risks and be part of a team.

Learning to roleplay a character is challenging and immensely rewarding. It requires some meta thinking and self-awareness that is similar to therapy in that you must step outside yourself, confront your actions objectively and how they affect others. I think D&D is actually a great way to cement what you learn in therapy. It’s easier to recognize situations where you need to be a better listener or whatever when you can step outside it all. Using D&D to practice what’s discovered in therapy, in an environment where the stakes aren’t real, is a good training ground for real-life experiences.

As you build a character from the ground up, there are fundamental questions to answer. What are your goals? How can you achieve them while making progress toward your party’s goals? Knowing what your character is about makes answering these questions easier. So much of therapy is learning effective communication and honesty. It just so happens these are important concepts for a harmonious D&D group as well.

My first character, a teenage dragonborn druid, draws from my natural indecisiveness and interest in nature. It made sense to start with a character that amplified some of my qualities. For my second character, I wanted to be someone more different. Like starting a new game on “easy”, and then playing a second time on “medium”. As tabaxi ranger Mabel, I am much more confident and outspoken than teenage Jade. Playing them concurrently I think a lot about making sure they feel like different characters.

One part of my personality that doesn’t come out during D&D sessions is my chronic anxiety. I have to put my real world fears away for a few hours so I can concentrate on a plan to take down Count Strahd. No longer over-encumbered by my normal concerns, I can actually relax. Mental weights have been lifted. That part of my brain that What-Ifs every possibility into oblivion is too busy engaging in a new world to do it’s normal thing. Even while I was dealing with health issues and recovering from surgery, I looked forward to playing a session each week because I knew it was a break from my normal brain frustrations.

D&D gives me something to think about that isn’t how little money I have, my 20 year old car, my dying dog, the general state of the world.

Having a low-stakes social event to look forward to on the regular is also good for my brain health. It keeps me from being too isolated when I get depressed. Occasionally, I’m required to do some basic math, or make decisions in between games (call this homework, but it is all in service of making your character more badass, so 🤷🏼‍♀️). D&D homework keeps me busy and feeling positive because its easy to finish. Honestly, D&D gives me something to think about that isn’t how little money I have, my 20 year old car, my dying dog, the general state of the world. Instead, I can spend time optimizing my spells, or coming up with more backstory for my character. There is so much within the game that is under my control, and as a control freak, working on these details also eases my anxiety.

Mitigating less charming aspects of my personality like control issues is another benefit of playing D&D. In a game where events rarely unfold exactly as planned, my boundaries have no choice but to stretch. I learn to be okay with the unexpected, because it wouldn’t be much fun for anyone if I played as a teenage druid literally slamming the door to her room each time she didn’t get her way. We’d never leave the initial tavern.

The game’s reliance on improvisation pushes me to abondon my more passive tendencies. I remember the first session or two where our Dungeon Master would give us some description, then leave things open for us to begin talking. There would be a moment or two of silence before anything would happen. That was the silence of beginners, not yet confident in their improvisational choices. As we got more comfortable as our characters, those awkward silences disappeared. Input is necessary and crucial to the building of a new world. I can’t be afraid to be a main character in the story I help create.

When I first started playing, I had no idea how often I, as my character, would have to introduce myself. We do this in real life and maybe don’t think about it as much. But roleplaying, it was something I had to consciously remember to speak up and do. And now that I do it so consistently, I feel less afraid to take charge. I have confidence.

Improv in roleplay also helps stretch the imagination in ways I haven’t felt since I was a little kid. The power to take the story *anywhere* feels daunting initially, but it’s the source of real magic. There is no one right answer! These adventures do not have a limit. Slowly I learn to build off cues from my partners and the DM. It’s not only about being willing to play in this fictional world, but understanding how to keep the story moving. Instincts on how to investigate mysteries, twist the truth to get information, strategize to stealthily take out enemies, those get sharper over time.

I haven’t even brought up the healing aspect yet! D&D adventuring provides some of the purest laughs I’ve ever had. That release of endorphins literally makes you feel good. There is something special about creating a world with friends that has its own lore, in-jokes and running gags. Being face-to-face with friends allows a real deep connection to grow. Even if you aren’t in the same room, video technology is so good these days its very easy to feel like your pals in multiple different time zones are right there with you.

Failure doesn’t always mean the End. There are still lessons learned, just as important as anything you learn when succeeding.

Adventuring through a campaign with others means accepting risks. Will you be able to slay that dragon? Can your party stealth into that castle? Sometimes, the answer ends up being “no.” Failure is not to be feared. D&D is flexible, much like life. You never know what the dice have in store for you. When something bad and unexpected happens, there is a way to get through. Failure doesn’t always mean the End. There are still lessons learned, just as important as anything you learn when succeeding. You will get stronger (literally, thanks to experience points and a level system, giving you access to better weapons, spells etc) and tackle the demons again.

Day to day, I am not involved in a lot of group projects. My job is pretty solitary. Most of the art I make is, too. In D&D I adjust and remember to vocalize my opinions and consult others, instead of working silently.  Communication, the key to smooth relationships of all types, is undoubtedly one of the most important skills in the game. Along with time management and strategizing – Count Strahd isn’t going to wait around for you to finalize your game plan once you burst into Castle Ravenloft. He will probs send a fireball your way immediately unless you act! So what’s the plan? When time runs out, it becomes a matter of trusting your partners to make decisions for the group in a split second.

Building that trust is part of what makes D&D so satisfying. The adventures we have are at times stressful and hilarious. We create powerful memories when we put our trust in others to unfold the story. Magic happens. Learning to let your guard down sometimes is a big, important lesson.

I think the more people who take a few hours each week to become a different character working with others to solve problems the better and happier our society would be. It’s a great release from stress, its made me more self-aware and attuned to others. Overall, I am a happier, more fulfilled person. A lot of people say everyone should go to therapy (I agree!) but I also believe everyone should play D&D. At least a one-shot!

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Links and Resources for the Uninitiated:

If you were unfamiliar with D&D and found yourself intrigued, perhaps you would enjoy listening and/or watching the fantastic adventures of shows like Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated, Join the Party, The Adventure Zone, Not Another D&D Podcast, plus so many more, I couldn’t possibly mention them all! At this point there is roughly one D&D podcast per human in America. Go get lost in a good campaign by searching on your favorite podcast player!

Looking to read up on gameplay or mechanics? Or need a place that’ll help you manage and build a character? D&D Beyond, Roll20, and the /r/dnd subreddit are all great resources. Geek & Sundry also has some helpful articles if you are just getting started.

Want to hear more about how D&D can be a useful therapy tool? D&D Beyond did a brief interview with Dr. Megan Connell, who is a theraputic GM! Catch her show Clinical Roll (a bunch of theraputic GMs playing together!) on the G33ks Like Us youtube channel, which features a lot of content at the nexus of D&D and psychology that I find fascinating and I hope you do too.

And of course, your local game store will have dice sets, the player’s manual, and maybe even a game night for you to check out! You never know how a roleplaying game might change your life.