Therapeutic Meeples: Social Anxiety and Playspaces

In this article of Therapeutic Meeples, we enter into the space of Social Anxiety, and how board games can bring out thoughts of possibilities and opportunities within our lives.

I touched on Social Anxiety briefly in another post, but wanted to dive more deeply into it. Also giving a shout out to Chad for his insight on a previous post about how werewolf/mafia can be a divisive game without properly explaining the ins and outs.

According to the DSM-5, (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), there are a total of ten diagnostic criteria for Social Anxiety disorder :

  1. fear or anxiety specific to social settings, in which a person feels noticed, observed, or scrutinized. In an adult, this could include a first date, a job interview, meeting someone for the first time,delivering an oral presentation, or speaking in a class or meeting. In children, the phobic/avoidant behaviors must occur in settings with peers, rather than adult interactions, and will be expressed in terms of age appropriate distress, such as cringing, crying, or otherwise displaying obvious fear or discomfort.
  2. typically the individual will fear that they will display their anxiety and experience social rejection,
  3. social interaction will consistently provoke distress,
  4. social interactions are either avoided, or painfully and reluctantly endured,
  5. the fear and anxiety will be grossly disproportionate to the actual situation,
  6. the fear, anxiety or other distress around social situations will persist for six months or longer and
  7. cause personal distress and impairment of functioning in one or more domains, such as interpersonal or occupational functioning,
  8. the fear or anxiety cannot be attributed to a medical disorder, substance use, or adverse medication effects or
  9. another mental disorder, and
  10. if another medical condition is present which may cause the individual to be excessively self-conscious e.g., prominent facial scar, the fear and anxiety are either unrelated, or disproportionate. The clinician may also include the specifier that the social anxiety is performance situation specific – e.g., oral presentations (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

This is interesting to me as it ignores some subtleties in socially anxious folks. To be fair, this is also the DSM definition so it points toward pathology.

I’m going to come at it from a different angle. I’m someone who was considered “shy” as a child, even as an adult. In part it had to do with feeling overwhelmed when meeting new people. I warm up and do better socially after a time, but initially I’m going to present as reserved. This was something I personally had to work very hard at when I started in mental health all those years ago. I had to give up the idea of being able to hide in plain sight, the ability to disappear, to not be seen or heard. I remember reading The Hobbit in school and thinking, I want that ring. It would be so easy to be present, but not engage.

A lot of this was driven by my insecurities about myself. Not feeling like I was enough around people. It was also urged by my desire to know how others perceived me or what they thought about me. Why did they think I was interesting? Why did they want to be my friend?

As an adult I have given most of that up. I think somewhere after turning 30 my interest in what other people thought about me waned. Also as a counselor, my job is to be a mirror, so the client really isn’t looking at me. Having a child reinforced my focus outwardly as well.

With this outward focus, I began to try to be loud (I still can’t project in a packed game room). But I put myself out there more. Invested more in being seen and heard, being someone who could offer something to others.

The biggest shift with this occurred when I started demoing games. Nothing like meeting strangers and then teaching them a game to get out of that introvert comfort zone. So enthusiasm, patience, kindness to others all had to get turned up to 11!

Well as loud as I can go, which still isn’t loud. Though in that play space, I can see myself, I can see others. Often a player will warm up as the game moves along, they become more relaxed.

This is the space where healing happens. Where safety is present. I remember all of the times in games where I felt that relief flood into me. My brain was focused on the work in the game, the enjoyable pieces, and not on the worry.

One particular session I had with a client sometime ago was a play of the game Roll Through the Ages (Eagle-Gryphon Games). He seemed to grasp the concept and made short work in sending a plague my way. Brutal! Though I watched him change tactics and see other possibilities after I developed Medicine.

He began to feel more comfortable, building the large pyramid, then talking about what his citizens were up to. Defining the roles of his cities. He said the bigger cities were focused on theatre and musicals. I asked him about that, something we hadn’t discussed. He was shy for a moment, then perked up when I told him the citizens in my city were eager to have a theatre too!

This was a huge entry point in our engagement, because it allowed him to have the freedom to share his passion. We talked about his favorite musical (Wicked) and who he related to (Elphaba). He connected with her because she was different, like him.

Did I mention he came to see me because of social anxiety? He worried that if he told his friends about wanting to perform on the stage and sing that they would judge him and not want to be his friend. He went to lengths of hiding his posters in his room when friends visited. Only after they left would he bring the posters back out for display.

I suggested the possibility of attending a performance arts college or even being involved in the community theatre. This was a little bit of a leap for him, but he certainly considered it.

To his credit, Roll Through the Ages does not have any reference to theatre and the cities are effectively made of check boxes. But he saw possibility, opportunity. Our following sessions focused on greater opportunities for him to engage with games and myself on his creative ends. We even talked about a game idea he had of singing or dancing as part of a game.

The change in demeanor after that session was wonderful to see. He no longer looked like he held the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was no longer fighting against the fear of being found out. He was now free to be himself.

If he came into my office initially meeting the description for Social Anxiety, he was certainly able to shed a number of those symptoms. This points to something I believe very strongly, healing can occur.

We ended our sessions about 3 weeks later. He apologized for no longer “needing” me. I accepted his apology, but reminded him that was my job. He capped that session by handing me the umbrella I kept by the door and fashioned a paper hat for me with a piece of note paper. He smiled, urged me to unfurl the umbrella. I stood there smiling as he walked out of my office, feeling every bit accomplished as the magical nanny.

I heard him whistling down the hall as he left, I think it was one of his own creation. Though I suppose I won’t know for sure.

Your turn. Share your thoughts: