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Suffer anxiety? A mobile game could help

Playing a science-based therapeutic mobile game for 25 minutes can help reduce anxiety levels, new research has discovered.

Playing a mobile game for 25 minutes can help reduce anxiety levels, new research has discovered.

Color Zen, a relaxing mobile puzzle game. (Credit: Large Animal Games)

As someone who is both prone to anxiety and depression, and is addicted to mobile games, this seems legit: researchers at Hunter College and The City University New York have discovered that playing a mobile game can help reduce anxiety levels.

The study was based on a technique called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). Individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders automatically pay attention to threatening aspects of their environment, such as an angry face. ABMT helps retrain that attentional bias towards something less threatening, such as a happy face.

The study concentrated on 75 participants, all of whom scored high on an anxiety survey. They were tasked with playing a mobile game, in which they had to follow two characters around a screen, tracing their paths as quickly and accurately as possible. After playing the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, they then had to deliver a speech to the researchers while being recorded on video — a particularly stressful situation.

The participants who played the game based on ABMT — which has not yet been released — displayed less nervous behaviour during their speech and reported fewer negative feelings afterwards than the placebo group — so it seems that you can't play just any game to wind down, but one that is actively based on therapy (although personal anecdote suggests that zen puzzle games can be relaxing too).

"Even the short dosage of the app — about 25 minutes — had potent effects on anxiety and stress measured in the lab," said lead researcher and study co-author Tracy Dennis. "This is good news in terms of the potential to translate these technologies into mobile app format because use of apps tends to be brief and 'on the go'."

The researchers are currently undertaking more studies to determine if shorter bursts of play — 10 minutes — can have the same effect, but feel that their research bodes well for the efficacy of gamified ABMT.

"Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionise how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health," Dennis said. "Our hope is to develop highly accessible and engaging evidence-based mobile intervention strategies that can be used in conjunction with traditional therapy or that can be 'self-curated' by the individual as personal tools to promote mental wellness"

The team's full study can be read online in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.