IRL: A look at coping with convention anxiety
It’s 5:00AM the day before PAX Australia opens to the public and I’m terrified. I was standing in front of a mirror before the sun was even up - my eyes fixated on the parts of me I thought perhaps people wouldn’t like. They knew me well enough from the countless hours spent together in game and on discord - but what if they didn’t like me quite so much in person?
Despite how anxious I was feeling, I also felt lucky. I was in a position some people would only dream of - I had a huge amount of my friends flying in from across the country and I’d get to meet them all. But nonetheless; I was weighed down by my fears.
How I was feeling was normal. Across Melbourne, countless others were in the same shoes that I was. And that is the first thing to remember when you’re facing anticipatory anxiety; you are not alone.
In fact, thinking about what you have in common with the bulk of attendees to the event is helpful - you’re all there for the love of video games, for the opportunity to see previews of new games, attend panels, get some sweet free swag and to see your friends.
Research suggests that up to 11% of people experience social anxiety in their lifetime - with almost 20% experiencing general anxiety. And with that, anxiety is disproportionately common among gamers - although, there isn’t much clinical evidence to back up why this is the case; some theorize that gaming is a form of escapism and as a result can be an easy, engaging hobby for anxiety sufferers to get into.
This year PAX Australia was the first convention I was attending for all 3 days that it was open. In my late teen years I'd been known to attend the odd singular day of Supanova or Oz Comic-Con alongside my then-boyfriend; but this was different. I was going alone to meet a bunch of internet friends, staying in an apartment away from my home and attending with a media pass for Patchgaming.
On the Thursday afternoon after I reached my accommodation, I excused myself from two of my friends to go get changed and freshen up. I'm not ashamed to admit what happened next - I had a small panic attack in my room. I took a moment for myself and reminded myself that It was okay to feel the way I did and that a lot of people felt the same way. That PAX would be comprised of so many like-minded people under the same roof, as supported by one of PAX Aus' slogans: Welcome Home.
I'm happy I attended PAX Aus. Although I'm a little drained now (physically and financially!) I regret nothing. Those first day fears slipped away so quickly and were replaced instead by an overwhelming feeling of happiness and appreciation for my friends. Although I'd been scared to go, I was now sad to leave.
Communicate: Although it can be daunting, letting your friends know how you're feeling before the event might help you if you feel comfortable doing so. You can even choose to talk about how you feel to someone who isn’t attending the event - talking about how you feel can help you decompress before the event. Also, your friends might be feeling the same way that you do!
Know where to rest: At PAX Aus and some other Australian conventions, our friends at CheckPoint run ‘AFK’ rooms! These are places where you can rest in a quiet, calm space and talk to staff. In other countries, AFK rooms and similar spaces may still be available under other organizations so before you attend a convention check out their website to see if they offer any sort of AFK or resting space! If they don’t, pick somewhere outside of the convention where you can take some time to sit down and relax. Additionally there was also a 'Diversity Lounge' - a welcoming space for gamers of all kinds which was put together by Alice Clarke.
Basic needs: If you don’t feel well physically your anxiety may worsen. Your physical and emotional states are closely intertwined. These effects are referred to as ‘psychosomatic effects’ - the interactions between body and mind. At conventions it can be easy to forget to take care of yourself physically so remember the following points. Sleep: Get at least a few hours sleep per day. There is no shame turning up to the convention an hour or two ‘late’ if you need to sleep in to catch up. Eat: Make sure to eat at least one full meal per day rather than relying solely on sweet convention center snacks - conventions can get busy and you very well might forget to eat. Drink: Carry a water bottle. Although drinks will be available in and around the convention, they’re usually expensive and are mostly sodas. There are usually free water fountains for filling bottles at conventions! Medication: If you’re on any medication or vitamins at all, make sure you keep taking them on time. Set reminders on your phone before you leave for the convention!
Avoid Caffeine: When you’re running around a convention feeling tired with many booths promoting energy drinks all around you it can be really tempting to reach for them. Caffeine mimics the psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety and can actually make you feel worse. Try to keep your caffeine ingestion as low as you can in high-stress environments, particularly if you’re not used to it.
Bring tools for calm: Maybe you like playing games on a handheld console to chill you out or maybe you like to carry around the CheckPoint Coping Companion? Whatever it is that helps you - bring it with you. I opted to take a Nintendo 3DS with me!
Know your limits: Don't push yourself too hard. Know that it's okay to tap out early or to take a long break. It's better to have a break and not be at the convention the whole time then to burn yourself out to the point of not enjoying it anymore. Additionally, never underestimate the power of a few minutes of fresh air over hot, sweaty convention air.
Remember: As said above, it is likely that a vast amount of the people you'll be meeting will be in the same position you are. It's also important to remember that with every person you greet, it may begin to feel easier. The first hello is always the hardest.
Local Websites And Emergency Contact Numbers by CheckPoint
Grounding exercises by Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology
Thanks to @_Food_Ninja, @memelord_epic, @TheMar00481, @MajickmanGaming, @CPNcondiment for their contributions via Twitter, some of which were directly quoted and others that helped the thought process.
Thanks to @ZombiesLvbacon for supplying the image of PAX Attendees!
Big thank you to Penny Arcade / PAX Australia for giving Patchgaming access to the event!