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Mario Runs for Me by Ben Huxley

My therapist tells me it’s the “flee response.”

A spark in my chest triggers an electric current which travels through my body, conducted by muscles and sinew to my extremities, where it shoots back to my chest, and before I’m aware my body is in motion, I’m running as fast as I can in any direction. Of course this isn’t scientifically or anatomically correct, but it’s my experience of a panic attack.

Some sufferers freeze; they’re paralysed as they hyperventilate, or shake, or grind their jaw (there are plenty of physiological responses to panic). But I’ve always ran. Attempting to keep still is futile – it’s a dark parody of a toddler struggling to keep still on their birthday, overwhelming dread in place of exhilarated joy.

Trying to keep still during an attack is futile, like lying in a dark coffin as someone hammers in the nails – I need to get out of there, fast. It isn’t a thought-out response, but instinct, a literal knee-jerk reaction. It’s not like running helps, either. Rather than leave my system, the panic remains, often while I’m exhausted, halfway up a hill – which only makes it more mentally taxing. I don’t sleep well, either – which is bad, because my body needs a good eight hours after what I’ve put it through.

It always ends, though, which is the thought I tell myself every time. The panic might last days, or it might last ten minutes, but it always comes to an end at some point. Mindfulness has helped me with stress, anger, sadness, and mild anxiety – as has my medication – but panic has always been a tricky issue.

For years and years I dreaded the day I couldn’t run, for whatever reason. Maybe I’d be in a wheelchair, trapped somewhere, or paralysed. Maybe I’d actually be trapped in a coffin, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Either way, I knew that one day I’d be panicking, and I wouldn’t be able to run – and the thought of that day was enough to make me nervous.

That day eventually came. It was earlier this year, during a visit to A&E. I won’t share the nitty gritties, but I was in a hospital bed, unable to move, and a panic started to brew. Walt Whitman said, “I sing the body electric.” That moment I almost screamed it. The panic was there in every sense; the inability to think, the electricity, the pain, the urge to move, to jump up, to sprint in any direction. But I couldn’t. The habitual response that I knew I couldn’t do without… well, I just had to do without it. I couldn’t run because I was trapped.

What I did next was a rare moment of rational and mindful thought (in case you hadn’t guessed, I’m usually on the mindless and reactive side). I knew that scrolling through socials wouldn’t help; that absent-minded venture we all do, almost against our own will, under the trance of everyday boredom. Aware that I needed to keep my mind occupied, I decided to download a mobile game (thankfully, I was in a magical area of the hospital with Internet).

I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want: a free-to-play candy-crusher, or a mind-melting puzzle. I needed to work my brain, and yet not stress myself more. The search itself became a decent distraction for a while, but eventually I stumbled upon Super Mario Run. I was suspicious to begin with; surely this can’t be a legit Mario game, on the Play Store, available for download on an Android? I quick Google told me that, actually, it was. Released six years ago, and I’d never heard of it.

Just the sight of Mario is a comfort to me, as I’m sure he is for many. That cheerful Italian plumber who waltzes through his acid-trip of a universe without a care in the world was, at that point, in that hospital bed, my saviour. Not just because of the initial uplifting sight of his mustached smile, but because Super Mario Run, it turns out, is an ideal companion during a panic attack.

It looks just like New Super Mario Bros. on the DS and Wii (it was developed by the same team), but it plays like an auto-runner. Mario runs from left to right, and all we need to do is tap the screen to make him jump. This isn’t an endless runner, though – like the early 2010s mobile craze Temple Run – because levels do have an end. And there are a lot of levels to master.

Speaking of mastering; it obeys Bushnell’s Law, in that it’s easy to learn but difficult to master. In a time of crisis when I need a quick distraction, this is ideal. Each level has three stages, that is, three levels of difficulty in the collectable coins. The replay value is outstanding – it took me a while to get everything, and I still go back to it now (during a panic attack, or just during a bus journey). It’s also worth mentioning that you get a Toad Garden to grow and tend to.

I still sometimes feel the need to run, when a crisis hits maximum level it can be hard to keep control. I’m not saying “this game will cure your panic attacks!” either, because every brain works differently. But I hope anyone reading this with panic (or any other) issues will take solace in the fact that a healthier coping tactic can appear when you least expect it. I never thought I’d see the day that I don’t need to run anymore, because Mario runs for me. But here we are.



Ben’s Muckrack

Ben is a freelance writer based in North Wales. He believes games are one of the most important and undervalued art forms, and aims to share their value to as many people as possible.