OCD and Video Game Addiction: What’s the Connection?

Over 2 million people struggle with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Another 40 million show signs of compulsive addiction issues when it comes to playing video games. With over 2 billion gamers worldwide, the risk of developing an addiction is great. But why is it that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder are more prone to developing video game addiction than others? And what similarities do these two conditions share?

Here we’ll take a closer look at what behaviors, symptoms, and tendencies are associated with both OCD and video game addiction and how they are related.

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What is OCD?

OCD is characterized by unrealistic fears and thoughts (or obsessions) that lead to compulsive behaviors.

A common fear many people associated with OCD is that of germs or contamination. Some people with OCD also feel compelled to perform specific behaviors or arrange items in an organized manner. Other repetitive or ritualistic behaviors include repeatedly touching doorknobs, turning on and off light switches, or the compulsive need to perform the same task a specific number of times. The inability to perform these acts can lead to extreme distress and anxiety. These symptoms can vary in frequency and severity throughout a person’s life.

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, urges, or images that cause unwanted and distressing feelings. Compulsions are the behaviors that the individual performs in an effort to quell or purge these obsessions and reduce stress. OCD is classified by obsessions and compulsions that interfere with everyday life and activities. Many sufferers are well aware that these thoughts and feelings are irrational and they are frustrated over having them. Feelings include fear, doubt, and disgust. Performing ritualistic behaviors is also time-consuming, which can interfere with more important responsibilities and activities in the person’s life. The Mindful Gamer, a video game addiction therapy site, explains that there are similarities in the symptoms experienced by those suffering from OCD and those addicted to video games. Often, the compulsion to continue playing interferes with daily life, responsibilities, and relationships.

Types of OCD

While there’s no specific classification for the different types of OCD, there are four common types: cleaning and contamination, symmetry and order, taboo/harmful/forbidden thoughts, and hoarding. Each form of OCD comes with its own set of symptoms, behaviors, and impulses.

It’s also important to note that some people may have multiple forms of OCD or overlapping symptoms.

Cleaning and Contamination

This first type of OCD is exactly as it sounds. Cleaning and contamination OCD is characterized by fear or worry over germs and the obsessive need to clean either one’s self surroundings.

Other symptoms include:

  • Persistent worry over sickness and germs
  • Persistent fear of overexposure to toxic substances, viruses, or blood
  • Avoiding possible sources of contamination
  • Obsessive thoughts about being unclean or dirty (both physically and mentally)
  • Washing or cleaning rituals (including washing hands, body, or surfaces numerous times)
  • Obsession over cleaning potentially contaminated places and things
Symmetry and Order

A lot of people enjoy a clean and orderly living and workspace, but those with symmetry and order OCD become obsessed with having things in order.

The main symptoms include:

  • An obsessive need for items to be organized or symmetrical
  • The need for belongings and other items to be aligned in a specific way
  • Feelings of distress when items aren’t in a certain order
  • Continuing to arrange items and belongings until they are “just right”
  • Symmetry in actions (if you rub your right eye, you feel compelled to rub your left)
  • Counting rituals (counting actions or items a certain number of times or to a specific number)
  • Thinking something bad will happen if you don’t perform these rituals (also known as Magical Thinking)
  • Organizing rituals
Taboo/Harmful/Forbidden Thoughts

For some OCD sufferers, their minds are the most dangerous and overwhelming place to be. This form of OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts that are considered harmful or taboo.

Specific symptoms and examples include:

  • Frequent thoughts about sex or violence
  • Shame or distress over these intrusive thoughts
  • Questioning your sexual interests and orientation
  • The constant worry that you may act on these intrusive thoughts and seeking reassurance that you won’t
  • Worry over harming yourself or others
  • Obsessions related to religious ideas and concepts
  • The idea that you somehow caused bad things to happen
  • Seeking reassurance that you’re a good person
  • Performing rituals to dispel intrusive thoughts
  • Replaying your daily activities in your mind to reassure yourself that you haven’t hurt anyone
Hoarding

You’ve likely seen people’s homes overrun by garbage and materialistic items. So much so that they can’t safely move around or even live. This is another common type of OCD defined by several symptoms and behaviors including:

  • An obsessive need to collect certain items or a certain number of items to protect yourself and others
  • The fear that throwing away specific items will cause harm to you or someone close to you
  • The fear of throwing something away by accident
  • An obsessive need to buy multiples of certain items, even if you already have enough
  • A fear or constant worry over losing a certain item
  • Not throwing things away because you fear that touching certain items will cause contamination
  • The obsessive need to constantly review the items you have to ensure nothing is missing

For many OCD sufferers, these symptoms cause upset and turmoil in their everyday lives, making it difficult to function normally. The obsessive need to perform these rituals or compulsive behaviors to reduce intrusive thoughts creates feelings of isolation and depression in some people. It becomes increasingly difficult to perform daily tasks including at work, school, and in their personal lives.

Risk Factors of OCD

Certain people are at greater risk of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder including those with:

  • A family history of OCD
  • A history of depression, anxiety, or trauma
  • Low levels of serotonin
  • Structural abnormalities in the brain

What is Video Game Addiction?

Now, let’s take a closer look at what defines video game addiction. By doing so, you’ll notice a few commonalities and overlaps with OCD.

Video game addiction is labeled by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as Internet Gaming Disorder and is characterized by a compulsive need to play video games. This obsession to play video games makes it difficult for addicts to function in everyday life and affects everything from their ability to form healthy relationships, work, or uphold other responsibilities.

Symptoms of Video Game Addiction

Video game addiction can present itself in several ways and encompasses playing video games on a PC (personal computer), gaming console, and even a mobile gaming device. For many gamers, this hobby or past-time soon takes on a life of its own as they experience the psychological, emotional, and physical benefits of gaming (more on this later).

Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of Internet Gaming Disorder.

  • Insomnia
  • Eyestrain
  • Neck and back pain
  • Weight gain
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Inability to perform at work, school, or at home
  • Strained personal relationships
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression, anxiety, and isolation

Similar to OCD, these side effects and symptoms can make it difficult to function in daily life. The obsessive need to play video games to achieve a sense of accomplishment and happiness can consume an addict’s mind, making it difficult to think about anything else. Mood swings and anxiety over the inability to play is another symptom that overlaps with OCD. Many people with OCD become increasingly anxious, irritable, or even fearful when they can’t perform their compulsions or ritualistic behaviors.

Why Are Video Games Addicting?

While it’s no secret that video games are fun and entertaining, what makes them addicting?

The biggest benefit of video games is stress relief. An alarming 77% of people report having stress bad enough that it impacts their physical health. Stress and anxiety are closely related and are two of the most prominent mental health issues plaguing adults, adolescents, and even children. Video games are not only fun but engaging. They trigger the pleasure centers in the brain to release chemicals like dopamine, which elicits feelings of happiness and calm.

Many video games also offer challenges and missions that come with certain rewards. Whether it’s in the form of coins, credits, or unlocking new levels, this behavior caters to the body’s natural reward system. The game poses a challenge. You meet and then overcome that challenge, generating feelings of competence and ability. Now, you’re feeling confident, capable, and less stressed.

Unfortunately, for millions of people, this creates a dependency and soon an addiction to video games. The Mindful Gamer is designed specifically to help addicts overcome their gaming addiction and find healthier alternatives for stress relief and fulfillment.

Another appeal of video games, especially MMO (massively multiplayer online), is the social aspect. Many video games have communities, chats, teams, and other ways for gamers to connect across states and even countries.

Video game addiction is also caused by a physical response in the brain. When people play video games, their brains release chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which elicit feelings of happiness and relaxation. Over time, gamers require extended playing time to achieve this same level of pleasure. This cycle is similar to what drug and alcohol addicts also experience on the road to addiction.

As you can see, OCD and video game addiction are two very different conditions but share some similar symptoms. While there’s no direct correlation between the two, research suggests that individuals with OCD are at greater risk of developing video game addiction.

Knowing the symptoms and signs of both OCD and video game addiction can help you better understand their causes and seek necessary treatment. While there’s no cure for either condition, both OCD sufferers and those with gaming addiction can benefit from a wide range of treatment options. These include, but aren’t limited to, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), mindfulness, meditation, ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), or medication.

CBT as treatment for both video game addiction and OCD are their main connections as both require retraining our thought pathways. When video game addicts are met with urges and cravings CBT practices help them to change the way they think about them so that they do not react or relapse. Similarly someone suffering from OCD must learn to treat their compulsions and intrusive thoughts with the same principle.

Recent research has shown mindfulness practices harbor great benefits for video game addicts and those suffering from OCD. The addicted brain can be an uncomfortable place. With constant temptation looming and negative thoughts provoking the need to relapse and escape. Mindfulness allows the individual to ground themselves. Mindfulness practices for video game addiction serve the same purpose as that for OCD. When we feel temptation, frustration or anxiety the mindfulness practices help to ground the individual in the emotional storm. Teaching the person to become aware of their being in the present moment, focusing on their breath and other other aspects of themselves to allow these feelings to pass.

Finally ACT, the purpose of ACT is to accept our negative thoughts to take power away from them, then commit to making a decision consistent with our values. When a person with OCD feels their compulsions they feel very real and very imposing. However, ACT exercises such as playing with thoughts. Eg. calling anxiety Bob. By naming our negative thoughts and emotions and calling them by that name we distance ourselves from the ties it has. Personifying them makes us look at it from a different perspective “Oh there’s Bob again” all that remains to do is welcome them and continue with what we are doing. This same principle is applied to treatments of video game addiction.

The good news is, whether you’re dealing with OCD or video game addiction, there’s hope. With a positive attitude and the right resources, you can live a fulfilling, productive life free of obsessive thoughts and compulsions.

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