I’ve written previously about my experiences as a role-player with anxiety, so the purpose of this article is to build upon that in a manner that will allow you to portray characters suffering from it in a sympathetic manner.
Before I start, however, it is worth pointing out that everyone is affected by their own mental health problems in different ways. The only anxiety I can explain to you is my own, and no-one else’s, and therefore may not be exactly how you have experienced it, or seen it experienced, before. It is also worth stating that if any of this makes you uncomfortable, feel free to stop reading at any point. Something else to bear in mind is that, like a lot of other mental illnesses, my anxiety, and how it presents, is rarely the same every time, as such this article is necessarily reductive.
To people who might stumble across this and think that I’m doing it for the attention, with the utmost respect, I am not. I am doing this to try and open a dialogue, to try to raise awareness of an invisible illness.
With all that out of the way, let us begin.
The first thing you should know is that for me, at least, anxiety is not a constant state. I have good days, days where my mind is clear and I feel like what I imagine a neuro-typical person to feel like, I have bad days, where I second guess everything I say and I do, and then I have REALLY bad days where I’m grateful for the fact that I work from home and can isolate myself with relaxing music and lose myself in my work or whatever I can find to watch. Usually, I can’t tell when I’m going to have a bad day, nor can I tell when I’m going to have a good day. My bouts of anxiety tend to come and go as they please, unbidden and unwanted. That said, criticism can trigger it, as can failure, or a perceived failing of myself. As an introvert with perfectionist tendencies, I can be overly self-critical which leads to a lot of self-doubt.
At the table-top, the best way to portray this would be to have a character who fluctuates through periods of ‘normalcy’ and periods of self-questioning. The trick is to find a balance between the two that feels slightly uncomfortable, but natural. The goal, of course, is to explore a mind that isn’t your own, but also it isn’t to make you, or anyone else at the table, uncomfortable.
Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that a small critique (whether from someone else, or something you criticise about yourself) can often snowball into something huge, something that could leave you paralysed with doubt if left unchecked.
How your character reacts to nagging self-doubt of varying degrees and gets over it (so to speak) is, ultimately, up to you. In my experience, validation from others helps, as does seeing proof of one’s own abilities. The former can be difficult to achieve for a few reasons, namely that when I’m struggling, I don’t feel like I’m worth anyone’s time, so I don’t talk to others much. This leads to me not being able to ask someone else if what I’m worrying about is actually something to worry about, or if there is something I have contributed that has improved their experience of the game/life. The latter is, obviously, far more concrete at the table, if your character succeeds at a task, or you roll well, your character is confronted with proof of their abilities. Ultimately, of course, what pulls your character out of the spiralling wormhole of anxiety is up to you, but to me, the source is usually external. It is not simply a decision I make to feel better.
It is also worth pointing out that the degree of anxiety I suffer from changes from ‘episode’ to ‘episode’, as does the length of time it lasts and the manner in which I deal/cope with it. When portraying anything like this at the table, it is important to remember that mental illnesses and their effects are extremely mutable and frequently do not occur in the same manner twice.
As examples of this, my anxiety can present as a feeling of unworthiness, a feeling of isolation, a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of futility and the most annoying (to me, at least) a feeling that everything I create has been done before and surpassed by others. I can handle a lot of negative emotion because I’m used to it at this point and have created reasonably effective coping mechanisms, but the latter feeling takes everything I am proud of about myself (my creative abilities) and throws them out of the window.
I suppose, to sum everything up, criticism (whether real or imagined) can cause an intense self-doubt (an umbrella term) that lasts until external forces influence your mental state (or until your mental state balances itself out, because that can also happen).
I should also note, before finishing, that my anxiety also presents as a form of pessimism, a constant worry that something will go wrong. For me, this is related to social matters (i.e. I’ve offended people so they will stop interacting with me) and cleanliness (i.e. I wash things obsessively to avoid illness and try to stay away from cooking raw meat among other things). Both of these things can lead to irrational behaviour and panic attacks but are harder to portray without being a stereotype. That said, if you want to portray behaviours like this, I trust you to do a sympathetic job.
So what do you think? Does this align with your experiences of anxiety? Does it help you to portray this nebulous mental illness at the table? Or have I completely missed the mark? Let me know in the comments.