Finding Balance After The Lights Turn Off

For a lot of – including my new extended friends in the PAX East hype group  – PAX is a highlight of the year. It’s not just because of the bright and shiny games on the show floor, or because of the chance at a lot of free loot. Its something deeper: the sense of understanding and belonging. Sure, the lines can be long and the crowd frustrating, but you get it because they are all here for the same reasons you are.

There’s a reason why the PAX conventions use the slogan ‘Welcome Home’.

This is why it sucks so much when its time to leave. Believe me, I breathe a huge sigh of relief when I get home and collapse into my own bed to get a full night’s sleep. There’s a certain satisfaction when life calms down from the constant stimulation that such a large convention can bring. But after that first night’s rest, most PAX-goers have jobs to return to that aren’t the most fulfilling. News of the outside world that had been blocked out by so much pomp and circumstance begins to filter back in. The daily grind feels inevitable as the rush of dopamine from so many new experiences fades away.

Is there any way to avoid the crash?

The Many Types of Post PAX Depression

I should preface the rest of this article by stating clearly I am not a psychologist. I’m not making any claims to being an expert by writing this article. I was simply inspired after seeing a lot of posts from others online about how much leaving on Sunday felt almost painful. I get that, really: after going to PAX East since 2010, I’ve found myself feeling pretty bad for a few days afterward in the past. The effects of melancholy, anxiousness, or frustration can linger for long after even that.

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While I am not a trained counselor, many of the people at the amazing Take This organization are. Check out their website for helpful tips or resources.

What I’ve realized over a few years of this experience is sometimes just identifying why you feel terrible is enough to dispel some of the hold it can have over you. With that in mind, here are some of the types of malaise that I know I’ve dealt with in the past.

#1 – Sleep Deprivation

This one is probably the most obvious. As someone that’s been slowly trying to fix insomnia patterns for years, I didn’t quite realize how bad lack of sleep can mess with your head. Sure, being tired itself sucks, but most people under-estimate the effects of exhaustion. For example, did you know that part of your ability to interpret other people’s facial expressions begins to break down? When I get less than five hours of sleep a night or two in a row, I can start thinking everyone with a neutral facial expression is actually angry or disgusted. Paranoia can set in pretty fast – it might be why it seems harder to connect with people on the convention show floor on Sunday.

It goes deeper than that too; your ability to monitor yourself begins to break. Impulse control fades, and parts of your brain stay on instead of having a chance to recharge appropriately like willpower. Sunday is the day you might find yourself purchasing ‘a few last things’ for multiple reasons. While sleep deprivation is the easiest to identify and deal with, it also is usually a gateway to some of these other bad feelings.

#2 – Sickness as a Souvenir

To be fair, this one probably isn’t your fault. Stick thousands of people together, make them so they are all interacting with the same objects – doors, game controllers, dice – and it’s a recipe for good times. It’s been well documented, and lots of people have written about it. Sure, you can bring hand sanitizer or choose to elbow-bump rather than shake hands, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice when you start to sneeze. At least with this issue, you can point to a physical malady and stop blaming yourself for feeling terrible.

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If you waited on the queue line at all, then you probably walked into several vectors of flu, colds, fevers...

#3 – Empty Wallet Syndrome

This one is probably one of the most universal. A lot of convention-goers save up for this trip, and even save up responsibly. Still, the cost of travel, the hotel… just seeing that much money leave all at once can hit like a freight train the next week when you go to pay utilities.

This one sucks, and I would be lying if I didn’t beat myself up for purchasing some big ‘limited edition’ box of miniatures for months afterward, since I could see it as a reminder on my shelf. It might be cold comfort now, but at least this issue is one that can be planned for and learned from perhaps the easiest.

#4 – The Big Let Down

Sometimes, expectations are dashed. There’s no getting around it; not everything can live up to the hype that builds as the event draws closer and closer. You rush to wait on the queue-line for an hour, only to find out that the Sony booth has capped its lines by the time you get to it. Your favorite cosplayer or streamer was going to host a panel, but had to cancel from the convention last minute. You have been waiting for months to try a game you’ve pre-ordered… and after waiting for hours on line, you find out you don’t like it at all.

#5 – Fear Of Missing Out

This is an issue that probably hits me the hardest out of this list. As a reviewer who is trying to at least give a cursory look at hundreds of different booths, you just can’t see it all. Even with a full four days and scheduling appointments ahead of time, there’s just no way to make it everywhere. I put ten panels on my schedule for this last weekend. Do you want to know how many I got to? Two.

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One of the big highlights of PAX East 2019 was the Borderlands 3 announcement at 2pm. People started lining up for it at 10am - it was impossible to get into.

This malaise is a tricky one to avoid, especially if you combine it with “The Big Let Down”. Even if you get to the booths you wanted, maybe one of them disappointed you. As the day ends, you check social media and find out that the booth right next door was giving away free T-shirts and you had no idea… not only that, people were raving about the demos they played. Did you just waste an afternoon?

#6 – The Dopamine Crash

As someone that’s been going to therapy for ADHD and studying how brain chemicals do all sorts of fun things, this one was a bit of a recent surprise. While this is an older article, it does a good job of explaining how it can build up to the point of addiction when you become focused on a singular activity or reward.

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While going to PAX isn’t drug addiction, there is still a chemical drop that can happen when its over. Your mind has become used to a constant influx of happy chemicals as it saw new game after new experience after new friend. Now that its over, the dopamine drops. What’s so insidious about this is that your mind likes to make up stories; maybe you are handling yourself just fine after PAX, but if your mind can’t figure out a reason why it isn’t happy anymore, it can try to make up reasons why you should feel sad.

#7 – Grief That It’s Over

Finally, the harsh truth. For most of us, our daily lives leave something to be desired. Maybe you are dealing with a tough job environment, or there’s an argument with a friend or loved one that’s not yet resolved. PAX East – or any large convention – is wonderful for many reasons, but one thing it can be is a pause button. News of the real world drops away under the sounds and lights of the show floor. Concerns that plague you daily become something that feels like it exists as part of a previous life.

When the party stops, all those issues come back. That temporary reprieve of what felt like a better life is over, and suddenly the problems of daily life return. If you aren’t prepared for it, that drop back into reality can hurt.

Ways To Handle The Drop

Life is either a party, or life is something that sucks that you just endure. It can be very easy to see things that binary, especially when you have gone from an overwhelmingly positive experience back to a negative one. Going back to work sleep deprived can make you feel like you’ve been dealt a terrible deck of cards where everyone that you met at PAX is living their best life all the time.

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I loved watching the MTG: Arena invitational, but I have to admit that I always feel a wierd remorse. Why couldn't I be playing Magic for thousands of dollars?

Hopefully, some of these tips might help you deal with the mood drop after a convention, letting you get back to remembering all the awesome things you experienced and that life isn’t so boring without a massive expo floor.

#1 – Accept That You Feel Bad

One reason why I put that massive list of reasons above this section is because sometimes you just need to accept that you feel kind of down, and that IT IS OKAY TO FEEL DOWN. If you just had a fantastic experience that lasted a full day or weekend, normal life is going to feel a bit more grey for a while. That’s fine, and that’s normal; you aren’t alone in the experience.

Oftentimes, people who feel depressed, anxious, or are just feeling down have their minds trick them into thinking they are separate from everyone else. Acknowledging that you don’t feel great can do two important things: make you remember that you might not be alone in the experience, and also remind you that this too shall pass. It’s just an emotion, and emotions change.

#2 – Refuel

Probably the most obvious tip, but remembering self-care is incredibly important. Did you only get four hours of sleep a night? Then it might take you a week to feel your head to clear from its fog by regularly getting enough sleep. Did you get an upset stomach from having too many energy drinks or alcohol? Then make sure you are chugging water deliberately for the next few days, taking time to eat healthier to replenish your system.

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See that line? That's the line to get into the convention Saturday morning before it opened! If you were getting up before 7am to get in and going to sleep after midnight, you need some rest.

Also remember that some of your normal boring routines can actually be your friend here. While PAX is great for seeing lots of new and shiny things, maybe you spent a lot of time waiting on line or hearing about games without actually playing them. Taking some time to relax on your own and play a game that you know you enjoy can help ground you back into normalcy.

#3 – Talk It Out

Part of #1 on this list is to remind yourself that you aren’t alone in this sort of experience. Part #3 is reminding you that it’s okay to talk out those feelings too. This is easy when you went to PAX East with a friend, but it might be harder if you went in solo. Acknowledging that you need a little morale support to get back to a stable frame of mind can help.

Just remember, its important to talk out these feelings, but don't sulk in those feelings either. It can be an easy trap to start talking about how terrible it is to be back in the normal world and start phrases with “I just wish I could be-“. Unfortunately, that can keep reminding yourself and your thoughts how much better things used to be, rather than trying to get back into the present. Whether it’s a friend, a loved one, or a therapist, getting a chance to have a conversation to work out what you want next can be really beneficial.

#4 – Remember The Good Times

One of the most insidious traps your thoughts can leave for you is always wishing for something that’s in the far future or in the distant past. Note I’m using the word wishing here, because there’s an important distinction between just wishing for something you can’t have and happily remembering something in the past.

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Getting to talk with game developers directly is one of the best things about a major convention. Getting a chance to do that outweighs a lot of the negatives.

This is an important step if you are part of the ‘fear of missing out’ crowd. It’s so easy to start thinking “If I had just made it to the Days Gone demo, THEN I would be happy”. Try to break that habit by asking yourself what you did see that you enjoyed. What experiences did you manage to have that you couldn’t have gotten back home? What made the convention special to you?

#5 - Plan For Next Year

Finally, this is some advice that I find really useful for shutting up the analytical side of my brain. Let’s be honest: this last PAX East is probably not your last gaming convention. A lot of regret comes from feeling like you missed the mark on a vacation that you looked forward to for so long; I remember being at my second PAX and only then realizing how many awesome opportunities could be found at afterparties. I was so angry at the missed opportunities!

Take some time this week to write down what worked this year, and what didn’t. Make a plan. Maybe you can get a better hotel by figuring out a group of friends to split it. Maybe you can avoid some of that empty wallet syndrome by finding deals in advance and only bringing cash to the show floor. Maybe you caught wind that Bethesda loves doing fan meet ups outside the convention center, and so you mark down to look into that for next time.

A gaming convention is a celebration that is cyclical. Most follow the same patterns; with that in mind, you can prepare to make sure you can avoid some of the pitfalls the next time around. Being pro-active is one of the best ways to avoid those helpless feelings of misery.

Experience Is The Reward, Not Just Happiness

I love every year that I’ve gone to PAX East or PAX Unplugged. Some events I remember more fondly than others. Some years I remember being life-changing: I remember the first time I walked into an expo hall floor and realized just how much in common I shared with so many people. Seeing the joy and jubilation on so many people’s faces, there to enjoy the same things I was! Unfortunately, it’s hard to ever recapture that spark of your first massive gaming convention, and I nearly lost enjoying one whole weekend to frustration. A new job kept me from travelling so I missed a day, and the sleeping arrangements had been so bad barely any sleep was had.

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When else are you going to get a chance to see Video Game Orchestra? Remember the good times that you can't get anywhere else.

Even during the worst convention experience I’ve had, I’m still happy I went. Part of the benefit that PAX gives isn’t just that it’s a massive party, but a break from the normalcy of life. Part of its value is a chance to try new things, even if not all of them work out. If I try to remember a particular convention and ask “but was it the best time of my life?” I am always going to find something that I had been disappointed in.

If I look back fondly over the years and just let myself be thankful that I was able to experience such a strange and massive event? Well, then I can smile and be content. The time spent at my day job speeds by just a little bit faster. Coincidentially, that gratitude that helps me get just that little bit closer to the next time I can pack my car, ready for another trip to Boston.