Esc Stands For Escape: The Link Between Gaming Addiction and Avoidant Personality Disorder

video games avoidant personality disorder
Playing video games can be fun and cathartic–as long as it isn’t symptomatic of deeper and more complex mental health conditions.|Image Source: Flickr User Marco Arment

No matter who you are, there’s a pretty good chance that you have played a video game in some capacity. With smartphones in everyone’s hands and laptops on everyone’s thighs, they may not take the traditional shape of a “video game” with a remote control, cable, and console that your mind immediately jumps to, but the concept is still quite similar. Though it is normal, natural, and often quite entertaining to be involved in a simulated game of any kind, this type of stimulation can be consuming for some–and that perpetual glow can shed light on other underlying mental health conditions.

Mental health disorders are highly stigmatized in our country for a variety of reasons, and the subcategory of personality disorders are no different. In fact, they often go undiagnosed, untreated, and sometimes unnoticed at all because of the personal shame and guilt that naturally accompanies in a culture where being “normal” is valued. One such example is APD, or Avoidant Personality Disorder, where the individual not only suffers from great sensitivity and reactivity, but deep personal anguish, shame, and fear.

While it is thought that those with APD make up about 2-3% of the population, those are just the cases that have been recognized. Fortunately, this disorder can be distinguished by certain characteristics and symptoms–many of which link to excessive and addictive video game usage. This is not to say that all avid gamers have Avoidant Personality disorder, but rather that being aware of how the two are connected can help those who suffer from this painful condition get adequate treatment.

Getting lost in another world while playing a video game is the exact aim of the companies that make them: but for those with APD, it can be with an entirely different intensity. Many components of video games connect closely to triggers and traits of those prone to or suffering from Avoidant Personality disorder.

Inhibited social skills due not to ability, but due to fear

Those who struggle with APD often stray from social situations and interactions, primarily because their fear of being judged is just too much to bear emotionally. A deep fear of abandonment, a key feature of this personality disorder, prevents many of those with it from making and sharing in personal bonds with others. Because the desire to connect is innate and necessary, these people often want to socialize, but cannot stifle the related anxiety.

Video games, by nature, provide not only an escape from reality, but an alternate reality. Social connections online, where most modern video games take place, allow the players to speak directly to each other via headphones, message, or even video chatting. The user gets not only simultaneous pleasure from fulfilling an inherent personal need of connection, but the safety of being behind a screen, where he or she is unable to be criticized, judged, or rejected.[1. Kowert, Rachel. Video Games and Social Competence. Routledge, New York, 2015.]

Quick-shifting and often extreme reaction time

People who are called “too sensitive” or told that they “over-react” may not realize the extent to which they navigate from one emotion to another at the drop of a hat. As a disorder, APD is different from being bipolar, due much in part to the genesis of their extreme reactions: APD’s roots of shame and guilt (often unfounded) trigger a defensiveness when one feels judged, and Bipolar disorder’s characteristic ups and downs are due to chemical and hormonal misfirings and imbalances.

While this is a distinguishable difference between these two mental health conditions, it does not change the fact that those with APD often fluctuate frequently and vigorously between feelings of happiness and gratitude to unannounced rage and/or sadness.[2. http://psychcentral.com/disorders/avoidant-personality-disorder-symptoms/] The nature of video games feeds into this by using things like missions, character simulation, and real-life situations or experiences to make the user feel in complete control.  

Since those with an avoidant personality are also hyper-aware of themselves, they know their reactions aren’t level, but also find them very difficult to control. Video games allow them the opportunity to have control over both their actions and reactions without personal or relational consequence–especially because negatives would only perpetuate their already very low self-esteem.

Very low and often debilitating self-esteem and negative view of self

Perhaps the factor about APD that is most overlooked is the sufferer’s view of his or herself.  After all, low self-esteem and confidence can be found in almost anyone at one point or another, as it is a defining trait of being human. That being said, the negative image that those with APD have of themselves can be all-encompassing, and oftentimes debilitating–preventing them from carrying out daily activities, maintaining friendships, and sometimes even jobs.

Because most video games operate on some version of a reward system for the successful carrying out of tasks, earning high scores, or simply completing a level, stage, or round, users that have a hard time feeling good about themselves in any capacity often find comfort in being rewarded, even virtually, for being good at something. This generally takes form in affirmations, “winning” or completing the game, and even personal messages or shout outs from team members or fellow players.[3. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00608/full]

While APD sufferers don’t always have hormonal imbalances, the disorder can certainly co-occur with depression–meaning that the feel-good endorphins like serotonin and dopamine released as a result of video games’ inherent reward system keep the players coming back for more.  Though these rushes are normal, it can become dangerous when gaming is the only source for feeling good about oneself.

Encouragement, eliminating stigma, and treatment

Because there are many symptoms of APD that overlap with other mental health disorders, it is important to first take your concerns and questions to professionals to determine the best type of treatment for the individual in question. If you suspect that you or a loved one has been using video games as a crutch to conceal symptoms or as a method of escapism, it is important that you treat the situation with compassion and encouragement: APD as a mental health condition causes sufferers to be very sensitive to criticisms and may view broaching the subject as a personal attack. Eliminating the stigmas and preconceived notions about those with personality disorders can only be done when those who are concerned treat it as any other illness or disorder7.

Bridges to Recovery offers intensive individualized and group therapies, including a wide variety of holistic options and treatments. Treatment options that can be especially effective for APD sufferers who may have a co-occurring video game addiction include those that involve some version of energy exertion and/or reward; pottery class, physical fitness and outdoor activities, and the drumming group at Bridges are especially good modes of healing that coalign with both. Avoidant Personality disorder is highly treatable if given the right attention and care–and it is worth it for all those involved.

 

Avoidant Personality disorder can be painful to live with for not only the sufferer, but those intimately involved in his or her life. Bridges to Recovery understands that each person is different, and offers an array of options based on your or your loved one’s needs. If you or someone you know struggles from video game addiction or avoidant personality disorder, contact us