By: Shaun Finney
I’d always been a bit of a nervous kid. It was the typical young nerd story of bullying and isolation you hear so often, so there’s no need to go into those details. But from junior high to high school to the five years after, there was a positive trend in my life. I was learning art software and making great friends. I was discovering that I could apply the obsessions typically associated with games and art to athletics. I collaborated with all kinds of people I met online, got a job testing games, and the trend in my wellness was up. All this time though, the Nervous Kid was still there, manifesting from time to time, but my typical coping mechanisms of playing games, being with friends and exercising were enough.
Then in 2008, the bomb dropped. I went two days without sleep driving from SF to San Diego and setting up a booth at Comic-Con. Some combination of sleep deprivation, drinking too much coffee, and huge crowds opened a new door for the Nervous Kid and for the first time my anxiety manifested into physical symptoms of nausea.
Nausea is hell. It’s my least favorite sensation in the world. I was feeling sick all the time, and like many out there, I went to work trying to figure it out. I was misdiagnosed as having gastroenteritis by my doctor at the time. But it seemed go on too long for that diagnosis. Giving up caffeine helped, but I noticed that I was still feeling sick in specific situations like crowds and restaurants. The clues were in front of me but I didn’t know what I was looking for.
So begins the age of coping mechanisms. I worked out until I got to the best shape of my life. I set limits and challenges like go to restaurants and only order salads, or go to the bar and order a sprite. Everyone loves the DD, right? I was trying to work through all of this but felt myself slipping, noticed myself taking sick days because my stomach was in knots. Dating didn’t work too well with the Nervous Kid on my shoulder. I saw doctors a few more times to rule out physical causes for what I was feeling, and upon finding nothing but great health I started to put the pieces together.
Before they were known for a series of alienating PR blunders, Penny-Arcade creators Mike and Jerry wrote very openly on their blog about their experiences with depression and anxiety. This, I think, was one of the most valuable services to the gaming community right up there with Child’s Play. Reading this got me thinking that it may be time to consider options other than my typical coping mechanisms–which would leave me symptom free for at most a month out of the year. And in mid 2012, a little over a year ago from the time of this writing, I went to my doctor and said “give me all them pills.”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down. Have you heard of cognitive behavioral therapy?” he replied. Fortunately, my primary care physician had a background in the treatment of anxiety and depression, and he recommended CBT. I would have been 100% willing to take something like an SSRI if it meant feeling better, and I was skeptical that a drug-free approach would work for me. After all, up to that point what had my coping strategies been other than drug-free approaches? I felt like the power of my mind had failed me. But nonetheless, the possible side effects of medication were valid concern and required about the same amount of time to expect results so I decided to find a CBT therapist and dive right in.
To begin, I had to wrap my mind around three core concepts for why I might be feeling bad:
- Thoughts create feelings. I think this is an uncontroversial notion. If I spend too much time thinking about regret, loss, worry, I don’t feel good.
- Many thoughts pop up automatically. Everyone gets weird little thoughts that pop up. For me it seems most of my thoughts pop out of nowhere. I often rely on them creatively.
- My automatic thoughts can be distorted. When the distorted thoughts are coming automatically, I don’t know how to stop them and therefore I don’t have any way to control how bad I feel.
The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to capture a distorted thought, decide in what way it is cognitively distorted, and attempt to replace it with a rational response. It seems there could be a million ways a thought could be distorted, but the book my therapist gave me, Feeling Good, identifies ten of them. And they are surprisingly applicable to whatever life was throwing me. I committed them to memory on flash cards and performed the three column technique every night.
It took me about a month to feel any improvements. The first thing I noticed was I wrote less in my exercises. I was discovering that I was capturing and replacing distorted thoughts in real time, without using pen and paper. Especially when the thoughts were an insidious repeat offender like “Oh god, I’m going to feel sick if I have to sit down in a restaurant.”
And then, there was a lightness. A freedom from my everyday worry. The Nervous Kid’s iron grip on my stomach relaxed. I could go into restaurants. I could hang out in bars. I could function at conventions. I could comfortably date again. In fact I could comfortably be me, the real me, the me I wanted to be and the me I deserved to be. All it took was the work.
Some say depression and anxiety can never be cured, only managed. To an extent this is true, I’m not fully free from the odd distorted thought. But I feel worlds away from where I was a year ago. When the Nervous Kid visits me now, he usually just wants to play Commander Keen.