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Understanding Gaming Addiction: Interview With Kathleen Parrish

young man in dark room playing video games - gaming addiction

While many people play video and online games for fun and camaraderie, others use these activities to deal with various issues they’re troubled with and don’t know how to handle. If they don’t receive proper treatment for these issues, they can develop a gaming addiction, which is a type of process addiction.

Kathleen Parrish Explains

Kathleen Parrish is the senior director of clinical operations and community outreach at Cottonwood Tucson. A licensed professional counselor and co-author of The Essence of Resilience: Stories of Triumph over Trauma, she works with people who suffer with trauma, mental health disorders, and substance abuse, as well as process addictions. She explains why someone might turn to excessive gaming as an unhealthy coping mechanism, how to understand what they’re going through, and in what ways proper treatment can give them an opportunity to heal and start a new chapter in life.

What Is a Process Addiction?

“[A process addiction] is defined as an addiction to a process of behaviors, such as sex, gambling, video gaming, or self-injurious behavior,” Parrish says. “Many of these addictive processes have a repetitive quality about them. Many people who struggle with process addictions have a sort of ritual or specific order/structure they develop when engaging in the process. They may have a certain time of day or order of events that surround their behavior.”

To gather with friends online or in the living room around a gaming console is often a terrific way to explore shared interests. But Parrish states individuals with process addictions are “triggered by any number of cues reflective of these rituals—for instance, an individual with video game addiction may also be triggered or activated by a computer in a room, use of the internet, or by certain built-in sound rewards within games.”

People develop process addictions for numerous reasons, but they often begin as a response to trauma. For example, a victim of bullying may use video games to escape into a world where they’re in total control. Divorce, financial difficulties, the death of a loved one, or the stress of living with a chronic illness may also cause process addiction.

Why Some People Become Addicted to Gaming

As amazing as technology can be, it also has drawbacks. Studies from Common Sense Media indicate that “teens spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes of their days on their phones, and tweens ages 8–12 four hours and 44 minutes daily.” While this screen time may present the façade of connection, additional research points to its contribution to increasing problems with face-to-face socialization, anxiety, and depression.

How does this relate to excessive gaming? “Many people are attracted to gaming as a means of connecting to others without the challenges of socialization that we might normally encounter. I’ve found many young adults who have an addiction to gaming tend to have underlying struggles with social anxiety,” Parrish says.

“Many role-playing games (RPGs) or massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide an opportunity for an anxious young adult to embrace a new persona, void of their own struggles with insecurities and perceived inadequacies that may normally plague them in real life. In an MMORPG, they’re free to embrace a more confident identity veiled behind a screen and a controller without the risks or judgment inherent in face-to-face relationships.”

While media portrayals of gamers frequently joke about individuals who are aimless, jobless, and living in their parents’ basements, Parrish indicates the opposite is true.

“They often come from homes where there’s a high level of expectation regarding performance and/or achievement. Often, these young adults have older siblings who are highly successful in their careers, and may feel inferior in comparison.” In 2019, the Entertainment Software Association reported that:

  • More than 50 percent of gamers are college educated.
  • Nearly 60 percent plan to vote in the next presidential election.
  • Approximately 56 percent of people who play games also have another creative hobby, and more than 30 percent also play a musical instrument.

But if challenged with feelings of social anxiety, depression, or inferiority, these gamers direct their energy toward and receive affirmation through the gaming world, where they develop a high level of expertise. “They have a network of peers in the gaming community with whom they maintain regular connection via technology,” Parrish says. “In some instances, individuals who engage in frequent gaming find rewards in developing successful strategies to excel in the game over other opponents.”

Gaming, she says, becomes problematic for people when the majority of their time is spent playing games to the neglect of daily life responsibilities. Concerns should be noted when a person:

  • Neglects self-care
  • Demonstrates poor hygiene
  • Has changes in mood and personality
  • Has changes in sleep or appetite
  • Is unable to stop gaming despite consequences

“Overall, we are looking for changes in an individual’s relationships, functioning, behavior, and mood,” Parrish adds.

How Grief and Trauma Contribute to a Gaming Addiction

Grief and trauma can both play a role in self-destructive and problematic behavior, Parrish notes, because trauma causes significant alterations in mood and the central nervous system, as well as in belief systems. People turn to addictive behaviors to distract themselves from unresolved grief or PTSD.

“We know substances can provide temporary relief for those who suffer from internal distress, albeit a brief and destructive relief. Process addictions can result in changes in the brain such as increased levels of dopamine, affecting the pleasure center in the brain and thereby improving mood,” Parrish says. “Over time, however, the individual loses the ability to find joy in other experiences and becomes increasingly reliant on the process addiction to provide them with relief.”

Addressing a Problem With Gaming

If you or a loved one has a problem with excessive gaming, working through denial is an important first step toward treatment, especially with young adults. Parrish says in most cases, individuals with a gaming addiction tend to present with high levels of denial which include:

  • Minimization—”I don’t play that much.”
  • Justification—”I’m gaming as a way to develop hand-eye coordination.”
  • Rationalization—At least I’m not out at bars or something.”
  • Intellectualizing—”You don’t really understand the way role-playing games are developed.”

“In truth, most individuals who are addicted to gaming behavior are truly suffering, and our goal is to help them recognize the benefits of recovery while moving toward a greater level of honesty about their wounds,” Parrish says. “Many young adults lack the skills to cope with social difficulties and benefit from opportunities to explore developmental milestones that might have been missed.”

Parrish stresses that treatment of process addictions such as gaming should never be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and must include a thorough assessment of factors, such as:

  • Developmental history
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Behavioral health considerations
  • Family history/dynamics
  • Medical conditions, including physical, emotional, and mental health

“These assessments help us to understand how the process addiction impacts the patient, level of readiness, potential response to various interventions, and family supports. Additionally, psychiatric assessments allow us to evaluate the need for medications to address any underlying conditions that might require treatment,” Parrish says. “Interventions that are often useful include psychoeducation, group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma processing, skills-based groups, recreation therapy, and mindfulness practices.”

Quality Treatment for Gaming Addiction at Cottonwood Tucson

When a pastime becomes compulsive, destructive behavior, understanding the source of the problem is the best method to help someone overcome a gaming or other process addiction.

At Cottonwood Tucson, our staff members dedicate their expertise to uncovering the root causes of process addictions and encouraging people to form lives free of pain and full of purpose. Talk to our admissions team to learn how we can help you.

For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, Arizona compulsive behavior treatment, call (800) 877-4520. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.
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