I live in Los Angeles; Hollywood, to be more precise. I haven’t been here for very long, a little over a year, but in that short span I’ve learned something profound about myself.
I get very stressed in traffic.
Any journey I have to make across the city in a car can be summed up as a string of encounters that have me gripping the steering wheel with one hand, gesturing at the most recent monkey to do something insane with the other, dumbfounded and exclaiming In what universe?! to no one in particular.
Before I moved here, I had liked to think I wasn’t a very stressed person: that the childhood anger management therapy, the teenaged anger workshops, and the few hundred hours of yoga teacher training had given me enough tools to breathe through it. Generally, I can. But put me in LA traffic…
“Getting stressed,” is a very familiar feeling to most gamers, I think. We find ourselves in a unique position of participating in inherently competitive games, either as sectioned matches or against the leaderboard, often with strangers we are matched with at random or by necessity, and that feeling can be a lot like wading through the gridlock of city traffic. Every car, every player, has some sort of anonymity inherent - sure, you might see the same car on the same commute every once in a while, same as you might encounter another player in your bracket more than once, but the chances are increasingly slim the more dense your city - that breeds frustration. That player you’ve never met before, or that driver you’ve never seen, has no other redeeming qualities outside of being a person, but that they’re another person can be hard to forget sometimes.
Even worse, you have no outlet for this frustration. All you have is an effigy in place of a person to vent at. The jungler you have to put up with in your ranked game walks into your lane and feeds. That hunter pulls the whole room when your healer is out of mana. Even in your plat Siege game, you can tell your Maverick is a boosted animal. These are frustrating triggers that get your cortisol levels rising, that urge your inner animal to get up, get your blood flowing, and let out this stress. But you’re sitting in your chair. You’re trapped in your car. All you can do is regard this creature that is governed by a completely alien logic with practiced bewilderment. Maybe grip your steering wheel a little harder. Maybe give your monitor some harsh words.
The frustration can easily bleed over to anger - in fact, it’s less frustration than it is the beginnings of our primal fight-or-flight response, and one of the reasons why the dynamic emotional effects of gaming can be more present in kids, since their systems are more mercurial.
How do you curb this frustration before it becomes full-blown anger? When you’re gaming, it’s easy: when I notice myself getting too heated during a match, even (especially) when I’m playing with friends or my brothers, I’ll tell them I’m going to take a little break, that they can play a match without me, or run a dungeon without me, and I’ll catch them on the next one. This little break gives me the opportunity to clear my head a little bit, grab some water, chill out, think about something else. Just divert my attention so my reaction can die down a little.
What that break allows me to do, too, is stretch my legs and get my blood flowing. This is probably the most important thing you can do when you feel yourself getting stressed. Just move around. Do some pushups, some air squats, some pull-ups if you have a bar. I used to do ten pushups every time I died, no matter what game it was. Then I graduated to doing ten pull-ups after every match. It turned my gaming sessions into weird exercises that kept my blood moving, stress levels lower, and actually got me a little jacked.
It’s tough to move around and stretch when you’re driving, though, so I’ve fallen back on one of the better tools I learned from my youth: breathing. I know, wild. Have you tried breathing? But seriously. I’m sure I’ll have to write a separate article on the practice of mindful breathing to break it down proper, but even just taking a moment to remind yourself to take a deep breath can totally change your mood. Listen to the sound. Feel it expand inside you. Hold it, just for a moment. And let it out, slow. Take your time. Feel how it leaves you, the sound of life moving through you and around you. Remember that you are human, that the anonymous avatar you’re getting triggered by is human, too. Remember that, though they may not’ve demonstrated any redeeming qualities in this match, they’re matched with you for a reason. Maybe it’s an off game for them, maybe your rank is rising because you’ve been doing well and you’re meant to be an equalizer here. Take pride in that.
At the end of the days, we are animals, and there is an animal within us that wants to come out. It’s easy to forget when we put ourselves in steel cages on wheels and zoom around at death-inducing speeds, or mask ourselves in digital space to sling spells or lob grenades at each other’s extensions. But we are. We are animal, we are human.
So, breathe, stretch, compete. Don’t forget it’s a game, but don’t let that infantilize the emotions that you’re experiencing. The stress is, chemically, as valid as every other form of stress. The frustration is as valid as any other frustration at feeling barred from your potential. But it’s momentary, and you can develop the tools to pull yourself back from the animal, to be your healthiest self. Move, stretch, honk every once and awhile - we are only human. Then breathe, and let it leave you.