Sanity Meters in 2020

About 400 years ago, before the end-times of COVID-19, way back in the second half of 2019, we had a series about video games and health. Toward the middle of the series, we talked about what we can learn from games about health and I mentioned a few games that included psychological health as a character resource that can be depleted.

I took to Twitter recently and asked all you lovely people to share your favorite implementation of psyche meters, and what happened when the bar started to get a little low. And you did not disappoint!

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The addition of psyche/sanity meters in games is one that is of particular interest to me, especially now, because it’s one of the few times that video games acknowledge that the situation the main character is in is not only taking a toll on the character’s body, but also the mind.

Anyone who has ever been alive and aware of their surroundings can most likely attest to the fact that this is true in the physical world, as well. The events that happen to us have an effect on us, and that stress affects all of us, both body and mind.

But did you ever stop to think about the depletion and filling of your own sanity meter when you are out in the world?

What is Stress and Is It All Bad?

The term “stress” is somewhat misunderstood.

So you know what that means. It’s time for some definitions!

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Stress is, as a very broad definition, the response the body has to any change in a situation. This relates to the idea that there is “good stress” and “bad stress,” but stress is more nuanced than that. Like anything we feel in our bodies, there are two components: the physiological response that we have, and the following emotional appraisal of the situation.

For example, feeling excited might feel like your heart is racing, your hands might shake a little, and your stomach might feel like it’s doing flips. Feeling scared might feel like your heart is racing, your hands might shake a little, and your stomach might feel like it’s doing flips. The difference is that when you are excited about something, you have a generally positive emotional appraisal of the situation (e.g., it is for something you think is good), but when you are scared of something, you have a generally negative emotional appraisal of the situation (e.g., it is for something you think is not good/bad).

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It’s the reason we say that a person’s wedding day might cause “good stress,” and a family member’s illness will cause “bad stress,” because both cause physiological changes/arousal (not that kind of arousal), but they have different emotional responses.

General stress, or the physiological response, is pretty straightforward, as far as explanations go. If a situation is deemed to be stressful, the parts of the brain that set off the stress response activate, pumping adrenaline into our systems. Our bodies also produce a chemical called cortisol, which, among other things, helps our body access stored sugars so we can maintain the energy needed to respond to the stressful situation.

The sympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for the involuntary physiological response to stress) ramps up, and the body pushes more blood toward our heart, lungs, and muscles, causing increased heart rates, breathing, and  blood pressure. Other non-essential functions like digestion, in order to conserve energy for more important actions.

Once the situation passes, or we assess it to be not a danger to us, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and the stress chemicals slowly fade, letting us return to homeostasis.

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In short bursts, stress is a survival skill. It prepares the body to perform incredible physical feats, like running away from that saber toothed tiger, or having the energy to fight off that other saber toothed tiger. It heightens our awareness and gives us a burst of energy. Our bodies are made to survive this type of short burst, and equipped to calm us down afterward.

The Call of Cortisol

But a body can’t survive well in this sustained state of heightened arousal. When the “dangers of stress” are discussed, what people are talking about is long-term stress, or a stress response that goes on for a longer period than a “typical” fight or flight response.  In this situation, the body stays “stressed,” meaning that heart may maintain an elevated rate (even if the elevation doesn’t appear severe), blood pressure is still higher, and cortisol levels are still elevated. These three physiological factors alone can cause damage to a body, not to mention the emotional toll that the stressor causes.

Cortisol, especially, can have a detrimental effect in the long term. As it disrupts “non-essential” functions in the body, it can have a long-term impact on digestion, appetite, reproduction, and even growth in children and adolescents.

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As if that weren’t enough, increased cortisol levels also effects the part of the brain that control fear, motivation, and even mood. From this, people can experience myriad poor mental health symptoms, from trouble concentrating, increased irritability, sleep problems, and weight fluctuations, and can also cause depression and anxiety disorders.

Fun times.

Depleting the Meter

It’s okay, we’re back in the safe place of talking about video games.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem" GC Review | Breaking Canon

Relatively, anyway. In the following games, sanity meters were used to great effect, both to stress out the character and, sometimes, even stress out the player.

Released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, is a psychological horror action-adventure game that, in all honesty, you probably wouldn’t see me within ten miles of playing. But aspect of the game that always fascinated me was its concept of the Sanity Meter, which depleted as stressful/scary things happened to the main character.

The effect this had on the game not only  influences the playable character, but also the gaming experience of the player themselves. For instance, as the sanity meter depletes, increasingly horrific things happen to the character, from body parts falling off, to “dying,” to being chased by zombies. On the player’s end, the game throws in some fourth-wall breaking elements, like imitating the television turning off, have the player character turn and shoot at the camera/player, and, most horrifyingly, mimicking deleting all of the player’s save files.

Similarly, the characters’ sanity levels are effected by stressful in-game events in Amnesia: Dark Descent.  Staring at a monster too long, or spending too much time in darkness, results in losing sanity. Losing sanity has a direct effect on how the character sees the game world, distorting it and making it look more frightening than it actually is. On harder difficulty levels, a sanity meter reaching zero results in death.

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Let that sink in for a minute.

The indie game Don’t Starve also utilizes this kind of mechanic, where the playable character may lose so much sanity that the resulting hallucinations can physically hurt the character.

Another game that doesn’t really deal with “horror,” but does deal with stress, is Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. In it, Solid Snake is put into a rather stressful warzone, complete with his trusty health bar and the new-to-MGS “psyche” meter. Being under fire, obviously, causes psyche to deplete, as well as being spotted by an enemy, but so does hanging out in the sun too long and running for extended periods of time. Both physical and mental stress causes Snake’s psyche bar to deplete, and as it does, aiming his gun becomes harder, and the world wobbles, until he does something about it.

That’s the important bit: the game is very particular to tell Snake to take care of himself, and to take care of the stressor itself. Sitting in the shade and taking a rest will help with relieving physical stress, or doing something relaxing like reading a magazine to counteract the psychological stress of the battlefield.

Which brings us to…

Surviving the End Times

What all of these games have in common is that they all harness the power of stress and show how it can have a profound impact on our well-being. Of particular interest to me are the idea that high levels of stress impact one’s ability to function, like in the case of Snake, and that the stress can actually, physically harm a person, like in Don’t Starve, or even kill them, like in Amnesia: Dark Descent.

In the midst of so much happening in 2020, in the midst of so much uncertainty, it’s easy to visualize that our own, real sanity meters are slowly depleting, Anecdotally, I don’t remember a time when mental health professionals took to the news to share lists of symptoms for depression and anxiety, and encourage people to talk to their doctors, or find a therapist, if they’re experiencing them.

Caring About Ourselves

Have you considered your own psyche meter? Have you ever sat and taken stock of what is stressful to you, both long and short term, especially now, and then done something about it?

A detail in Metal Gear Solid 4 that I find very compelling is that Snake needs to react to the thing that is causing stress, in order to counteract it. Physical stress requires a physical rest to recover. Mental stress requires mental rest, or a combination of mental and physical rest. Reading a magazine doesn’t combat physical stress, except for the fact that running while reading is probably not a safe idea so by default the running would stop.

The takeaway is that caring about yourself during stressful situations is sometimes about what is best for you in that moment, not necessarily what you want to do.

Sometimes we see people talk about self-care, and they do things like sleep all day, or binge a television show, or eat half a chocolate cake, or buy something for themselves. These things are not inherently bad, and I’m not going to say to never ever do these things. Sometimes, a Hard Reset is needed, especially when stress gets so bad that burnout hits, or, worse, mental health takes a nosedive.

But in the normal, day-to-day, taking care of what we need, rather than what we want, is of paramount importance.

For a personal example, I was diagnosed with clinical depression a number of years ago. As some of you may know, depression takes away… well, you. It’s like a parasite that feeds on your thoughts and won’t stop until there’s hardly any of you that remembers it’s strong enough to survive the nebulous, choking fog.

Among other things, my depression makes me think that sleeping all day will make me feel better. And, maybe, in the short term, it does. I don’t feel horrible when I’m sleeping, and there is nothing that will add to my stress when I’m asleep. Sometimes even facing the nightmares is better than the uncertainty of my life right now. I could easily sleep for eighteen hours, and have, in depressive episodes past.

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But even though it’s what feels good, and eases the awful feelings for a time, is that what’s best for me? Is that really self-care? Is that really addressing the problem?

No. No. The answer is no.

In this case, I’m like Snake, reading a magazine out in the sun and expecting that to help the stress caused by physical exertion out in the sun. While reading the magazine slows me down, it’s not really what Snake needs in that moment to recover.

This might seem like an extreme example, as my example is due to a diagnoses illness, but the concept is the same for anyone stressed and seeking to self-care/self-soothe/return to homeostasis.

What is helpful at these times is being aware of the cause (e.g., stress at This or That thing/event/person, depression, etc.) and working toward being back in a place where handling The Cause seems less insurmountable. At this point, it’s regulating the physiological and chemical responses going on in the body, in order to be able to face the root problem from a healthier standpoint.

This might mean making sure your body is nourished, and not relying on the quick “feel good” feelings that come from eating potato chips and chocolate.

It might mean getting up and doing just one thing, and showing yourself you can still be successful even if you don’t feel well.

Exercise also effectively calms the stress responses we talked about above, too, and can “unstick” thoughts when they begin revolving too much around one way of thinking. It can “work out” powerful emotions like anger or sadness, or stress, and can give a person something they are successful at, and makes them feel good.

For me, it took a while to find a routine that worked (or mostly worked). I made mistakes. I had to try new things. Or old things differently. I have to remind myself, sometimes every day, that it’s worth it. My health is worth it.

But boy, is it hard. To exercise, I have to get the weights out of the closet. And then put them away again. And wipe down my mat. And turn the fan on. And I have to do the exercise thing for how many minutes?

Watching a movie? You have to go and decide something? You’ve had to make so many decisions today already.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier, and so much nicer, to sleep?

The bottom line is, when our psyche meters deplete, we need to ask ourselves:

Do we let the situation dictate to us what happens to us, like a horror game character who presses ever onward as the world bends and twists until they can no longer function, thinking that “if I just get through this door” it’ll be better?

or

Do we take the initiative to give ourselves what we need, even if it’s hard, even if it takes a few tries to get it right, so we can keep moving forward without losing our save files?

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is only a phone call away:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (US): 1-800-273-8255
Samaritans (UK): +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90

Or find your local hotline here: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

How are you doing? What do you do every day to make yourself smile? How do you take care of yourself? I’ll be in the comments if you’d like to chat.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

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2 comments

    1. Thank you for reading. This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot recently, as so much seems to be unpredictable out in the world and causing so much stress.

      I’d forgotten about Celeste! A friend streamed it and I was very struck by how it integrated the concepts of anxiety and depression into the gameplay. It’s definitely another one that shows good examples of the road to self-care and self-acceptance. Thank you for reminding me!

      Liked by 1 person

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