I have had Second Life friends who frequently suffer anxiety attacks – I can think of four people off the top of my head but there may be more. I always encouraged them to be open about the way they were feeling so I could reassure and comfort them. I did this primarily out of friendship, but I also did it because I understood what they were going through: I’ve suffered anxiety attacks during my life that would incapacitate me with bodily fear, shaking, my heart racing, and often without anything at all to have brought it on (well, nothing I was aware of anyway). The worst of these attacks occurred when I was on antidepressants about a decade ago – they put me on the wrong medication and it almost killed me.
The problem with virtual worlds is that they lend themselves to paranoia. Usually we use facial expressions, body language, eye contact etc, to figure out what people think of us and what’s going on around us. Without any of this in Second Life we look for other cues – eg long silences, unexplained disappearances. The number of times I’ve had perfectly calm rational people ask me if I had a problem with them just because I took a few minutes to reply to an IM or because I TPed away when they arrived somewhere, is more than I can count, but somedays would happen many times over from different people, reading unintended messages into my behaviour because they lacked other cues I’d normally provide in the real world – like a smile or eye contact to quickly let them know that we were all good.
As humans we naturally look for patterns in the behaviours of those around us – especially in the people we think we know well. We establish expectations and when behaviours and words from others start varying from those expectations we want to know why, and when it happens with a lot of people all at once we get rather paranoid. This looking for patterns and trying to understand them is a survival instinct and perfectly rational – we need to identify and respond to threats before they become something too big (or too “real”) for us to deal with.
When you try to verbalise what’s bothering you though you will more often than not get the response of “oh you’re just being paranoid”. Well, yeah. But that response doesn’t help, what is required is proper and meaningful reassurance or a possible explanation for the behaviours that are causing the concern. When people aren’t open about the reasons behind their actions, your mind will try to create an explanation in its place. And being only human we will often think the worst because we need to be prepared to deal with threats – both emotional and physical – as they arise. As you try to sort out in your head why things are changing around you, you start to doubt yourself, you start to wonder if you’re seeing patterns where there are none, you start to wonder if you’re going “mad”. And while those around you brush off your concerns as “paranoia” or refuse to communicate at all, the paranoia and anxiety feeds into itself and becomes a monster in its own right.
So do me a favour, next time someone says or does something that you think reveals they’re just being paranoid, sit them down and ask them what made them get the impression that someone or something was out to get them. And if there really is something that grounds the paranoia, help them cope with the situation and the threat. And if there isn’t, then reassure them, give them a big huggle and tell them you’re there if they need to talk. Sometimes paranoia is rational, sometimes it is a mental illness, but always it is something that you should care enough about to help your friends through it.