Most of us turn to video games to relieve stress. After a long, hard day’s work, it is incredibly appealing to pick up the controller or turn on your computer and play a few rounds of your favorite game. However, sometimes video games can be more tiring than rejuvenating. Why is that? Do video games actually reduce stress?
Video games reduce stress in the following ways:
- Video games are engaging and enjoyable, which reduces stress.
- Gaming results in dopamine secretion, which makes you feel good.
- Video games present a challenge and reward you for overcoming it, which leads to feelings of competence.
- Gaming can create a flow state, which is similar to meditation.
- Video games give you instant rewards, which help to reduce the stress of achieving long term goals.
- Gaming can be an avenue for creativity and art, which can help to decompress.
- Video games can result in meaningful social connections, which is a great way to unwind after a long day.
Let’s explore how video games reduce stress in more detail. Let’s also look at the risks of relying on video games to unwind.
How Do Video Games Reduce Stress?
To understand the effect of playing video games on our stress levels, we need to understand how video games affect our minds.
Engagement and Enjoyment
Think of the last time you enjoyed doing something. It could be watching an entertaining TV show, having a great conversation with someone, or playing a video game. How did you feel at the moment? Were you thinking about something other than what you were doing?
Most likely not. You were fully engaged in the activity at hand, and your mind was not focusing on anything else. Engagement and enjoyment are some of the best ways to relieve stress. Next time, try to do something enjoyable (apart from gaming) and observe its effects on your stress levels. There will be a marked difference.
One of the reasons we enjoy playing video games is that gaming induces pleasure in our brains. When we play a video game and enjoy it, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center. When this dopamine release happens, we feel good and euphoric. The pleasure and enjoyment we receive from gaming helps us cope with the stresses of the day.
However, enjoyment from dopamine is not the only reason for stress relief from video games. There is a psychological pattern in our brain called the Triumph circuit, which rewards engagement. Our brain is wired to make us feel good when we overcome challenges. Video games have hacked this circuit. They present us with a challenge and the tools to overcome it. When we succeed, the feelings of satisfaction and competence are positive emotions that help counteract stress.
The amount of immersion and engagement we feel when playing a video game is not only due to the triumph circuit. The triumph circuit works on outcomes — it makes us feel good when we accomplish a challenge. However, getting so deeply immersed in playing the game that everything else seems distant is another level of engagement and focus called a flow state.
The flow state is a state you achieve when your mind becomes one-pointed. It occurs when your mind is so focused on the activity that you are performing that your mind stops generating other thoughts. It is in such stark contrast to our mind’s normal state, in which it is flitting from one thought to another, a quality which the Buddhists call “monkey mind”.
This state is very similar to the state of meditation in which our mind becomes “silent.” Our mind stops generating thoughts, and we become focused on a single stimulus, which can be a physical sensation, movement, visual stimulus, sound, etc. Meditation is known for its stress-relieving benefits, and studies have hypothesized that the flow state works similarly.
Video games provide instant gratification, which means that we have to put in a minimal amount of time to receive a reward or accomplish something. That can be a powerful thing since the world outside video games often works on the opposite principle: delayed gratification.
You have to work for hours at a job for several weeks to receive a salary, a CEO needs to put in several hours into their company to see growth, and a student has to study for multiple years to get a college degree. We see rewards over long-term periods. If used healthily, video games can be a great way to keep progress going in the long term by being a source of short-term rewards. They can provide a break for those leading demanding lives. Moreover, when we are going through setbacks, they help us cope by giving us small, attainable goals to help create a feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction.
Video Games Encourage Creativity
Our brain has two hemispheres, called the left-brain and the right-brain. They are different from each other in the following ways:
- The left-brain is analytical, logical, numerical, fact-oriented, structured, and thinks with words.
- On the other hand, the right-brain is creative, intuitive, free-thinking, and thinks visually rather than with words.
For the most part, most of the work we do is left-brain oriented. Our work might involve crunching numbers, making sales, reading documents, manipulating data, etc. Most of our life is very structured, and a lot of the focus is on being productive.
As a result, our right-brain goes neglected. We hardly ever take the time (or have the time) to engage in creative activities, such as art, sculpture, etc. An excellent way to recognize an over-active left brain is noticing how your mind reacts to creative activities, for example, if you sit down to draw something, and your mind starts to think of the “correct” way to draw it. The left-brain is more free-flowing than that — to exercise your right brain is to create art without worrying about its correctness”.
A study showed that the stress-related hormone cortisol lowers significantly after just 45 minutes of art creation. That shows that being creative has a significant impact on your stress levels. However, not everyone has the time, experience, or tools required to create art.
That is where video games step in. From the blocky sandbox game Minecraft, or the city building game SimCity, there are plenty of ways to be creative in video games. Gaming is an excellent opportunity to sit back, relax, and create whatever comes to mind without worrying about winning or losing. Art and creativity can be quite therapeutic.
Social Connection from Video Games
The power of video games is not limited to just challenge, fun, or creativity. Games are a great way to form meaningful social connections and cultivate relationships. Playing with your friends is not a concept that started with video games. Throughout human history, children have gotten together to play games with each other.
The beauty of video games is that you don’t have to be physically present with someone to play games with them. The internet connects you with likeminded people who share interests with you. Social gatherings are a no-brainer to combat stress. However, when that is not possible (perhaps due to a worldwide pandemic), video games can be a great way to cultivate and maintain relationships.
They can connect you with a community that is supportive and therapeutic, especially in these times. Gaming with friends, whether competitively or casually, is a great way to de-stress.
How Can Violent Video Games Reduce Stress?
Most people tend to view high-adrenaline, fast-paced games as stress-inducing. That seems like a perfectly logical conclusion — after all, how can something that is so fast-paced and violent be relaxing?
The type of games a person plays depends on their personality. Some people prefer fast-paced activities because that is the only way their brain stays engaged. They enter the flow state by engaging their brain to such a degree that other thoughts don’t arise, and they can relax by playing the game.
Even though research shows that adrenaline spikes during some violent video games, it quickly returns to baseline about five minutes after the player stops gaming. Moreover, the players report higher positive emotion ratings after playing a violent video game such as Mortal Kombat compared to the puzzle game, Tetris.
This observation contradicts previous research, which shows that puzzle games induce positive emotions such as relaxation, while fighting/shooting games induce negative emotions such as anger, hostility, or fear. The researchers believe that concepts within the self-determination theory could explain their findings. They believe that gamers are motivated to play video games that satisfy the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Competence is the need for challenge and feeling competent during a task, and lower perceived competence correlates to more negative emotions such as frustration after gameplay.
At the same time, there is still some merit to the question of whether fast-paced and violent video games reduce stress. Fast-paced games create a stressful environment, which some gamers enjoy. However, other players experience more negative than positive emotions when playing competitive video games. Feelings such as frustration and shame start to arise. Not everyone enjoys performing under pressure, and sometimes the demand to compete and win can be too much to allow for engagement and enjoyment.
What Does the Research Say About Gaming to Reduce Stress?
A study conducted by Porter and Goolkasian in 2019 compared the stress responses of two groups, one that played the fighting game, Mortal Kombat, and another group that played the puzzle game, Tetris. The researchers found that the Mortal Kombat group experienced a cardiovascular stress response while Tetris players did not.
The study also found that video games reduced negative emotions, such as frustration in stressed individuals. The participants reported playing video games for stress relief purposes.
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health took a large sample of 1254 children from two American states. It found that many children play video games to manage their feelings, such as anger and stress. Moreover, children who played violent video games were more likely to get their anger out.
Ona the contrary, some research shows that violent video games increase physiological responses, such as:
- Heart rate (Barlett & Rodeheffer, 2009)
- Blood pressure and skin conductance (Arriaga, Esteves, Carneiro, & Monteiro, 2006)
- Stress hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine.
Do Video Games Just Suppress Problems?
Video games put us in an unknown environment, present us with an objective, and equip us with the tools or knowledge to complete that objective. As a result, gamers develop a brain that is efficient at problem-solving in an environment that gives them a clear goal.
However, emotional suppression is a big problem among gamers. Since the primary way they deal with stress is to turn on a game and become immersed in it, the negative emotions that cause them stress have nowhere to go. As a result, they stay suppressed. That does not mean that they don’t control our behavior — we are just unaware of when they do.
In this video, Dr. K talks about how emotional suppression causes you to get stuck in life
Emotional suppression can also explain why there is so much toxicity in the gaming community. Click here to read about alexithymia and gamer rage.
That also leads to alexithymia, a condition characterized by the inability to determine your inner emotional state. Most gamers suffer from alexithymia, which is one of the main reasons they get stuck in life. Games help us cope with stress, but whether they do it in healthy ways or not is up for debate. However, it is essential to note that if a person learns how to confront and process their emotions, then the harmful effects of gaming, such as emotional suppression, are much less dangerous.
Click here to read about the harmful effects of video games.
How Much Gaming is Good to Reduce Stress?
There is a fine line between gaming as a way to unwind after a long hard day and playing video games as a form of escapism. We need to be mindful of how many hours a day we spend gaming, and why we play games. Is it because you want to relax with an hour of Stardew Valley? Or do you want to procrastinate on your homework by playing 4 hours of League of Legends?
There are important questions to ask, and you are the only one who can determine the right answer for yourself. If you spend 12 hours a day playing games to escape the shame of procrastination, then you might have a problem. If not kept in check, gaming can easily lead to avoidant behavior.
Click here to read about the signs of video game addiction.
Is there a Risk of Addiction From Gaming to Reduce stress?
Some studies have shown that playing video games to cope with anxiety may increase the risk of addiction. This finding should not come as a surprise — a coping mechanism can quickly become a dependency when the root problem goes unaddressed.
Dr. K talks about recognizing addictive behavior in this video:
Gamers can form unhealthy attachments to games because they’re the only thing in their life that helps them cope with their problems. If you are not seeing a mental health professional for your anxiety or depression, and are playing video games to cope, then that is the path to addiction.
Moreover, after a particular stage of video game addiction, video games stop being fun. As a result, they don’t even help reduce stress, but it is still challenging for gamers to stop playing them.
Click here to read more about the Stages of Video Game Addiction.
Every gamer is different. Perhaps you like action games such as Call of Duty or Fortnite, or maybe you prefer something more relaxing, like Stardew Valley. Maybe you like to play a few matches of your favorite MOBAs like Dota 2 or League of Legends to de-stress after a long day. The core idea is that you should enjoy what you play, and be aware of why you play video games.