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Personal Zen app promises to reduce stress in 25 minutes

This free game has science in its corner. But it's missing something else: fun.

Personal Zen is one weird little game, but science says it works. Personal Zen LLC

Feeling stressed? There's an app for that.

Personal Zen for iOS promises to reduce your stress and anxiety by way of a simple game played a few times per week. What's behind that promise? Science.

According to the development team, which consists of "leading neuroscientists and mobile developers," the app is clinically proven to reduce stress.

And here's the research to back that up: A newly published study in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that attention-bias modification training -- the kind provided by Personal Zen -- can lower anxiety levels.

This excerpt from the Association of Psychological Science helps to explain just how the app works its calming magic:

The game is based on an emerging cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). Essentially, this treatment involves training patients to ignore a threatening stimulus (such as an angry face) and to focus instead on a non-threatening stimulus (such as a neutral or happy face). This type of training has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress among people suffering from high anxiety.

The actual game plays like this: You're shown a grassy green field. Two blue faces appear briefly -- one happy, one angry -- then bury themselves in the grass. A line of taller grass sprouts from where the happy face dug its hole; your job is to quickly trace that line with your finger.

It's weird. Really, really weird. As noted above, the goal is to train your brain to focus on the non-threatening stimulus, in this case the happy face, but here you have barely a second before both faces disappear. Thus, it's almost like you have to get lucky in spotting the happy one.

Of course, it doesn't really matter, because the line you need to trace appears only in one area. I'd say the real goal here is to distract your brain from the all the negative stuff that's causing your stress. And Personal Zen can definitely do that.

However, although the app description says to play the game for at least 15-30 minutes, the research indicates you need 25 minutes to get the full benefits. (Studies are continuing to see if, say, 10 minutes can be as effective.) That's a long, long time to play a very repetitive game that gets really boring in a hurry. I tried it a couple times, and the most I could tolerate was about six minutes.

That said, I'm all about finding time to calm my agitated brain, which is why I continue to use Buddhify, a mindfulness-training app that provides guided meditations of about 5-10 minutes apiece.

Have you found a better app-powered solution for getting your zen on? Talk it up in the comments. And in the meantime, if you're seriously stressed out, grab some earphones and give Personal Zen a try. It's backed by science, after all.