Smartphone Game May Help Ease Anxiety

Smartphone Game May Help Ease Anxiety

Posted on May 21st, 2014
Posted in Mental Health

Smartphones are a great convenience, but they have many people worried about their long-term effects on mental and physical health. However, a new smartphone game called Personal Zen may actually improve mental health by helping users lower their anxiety.

The game was developed by Dr. Tracy Dennis, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College in New York. The game employs a method known as attention bias modification, which is one subset of a larger method known as cognitive bias modification.

These methods are based on the idea that people can train their brains to pay more attention to positive things and less attention to negative elements that contribute to anxiety. Previous studies have found that cognitive bias modification can be effective at treating anxiety, and Personal Zen is an attempt to make this kind of therapy readily available to a much larger segment of the population.

The game involves the faces of little blue characters that pop up out of a grassy background and then burrow back down. Some of the characters have angry and frustrated-looking faces, while others have happy and calm faces. Users earn points in the game by using a finger to trace the paths of the happy characters as they burrow under the ground.

Early Results Show the Game May Be Effective

In a study published in March in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers tested the effectiveness of the smartphone game. Participants were asked to play the game for either 25-minute or 45-minute therapeutic sessions, after which they were asked to perform various stressful tasks. These tasks consisted of things like counting backward from 1,007 by 11s, or giving a speech in front of a camera. Half of the participants played the Personal Zen game, while the other half served as a control group and played a placebo game that did not incorporate cognitive bias modification.

The participants consisted of a group of 75 individuals who had all scored high on an anxiety survey. The researchers found that the individuals who played Personal Zen experienced lower levels of anxiety when they were asked to perform a stressful task than the individuals who played the placebo game. These results are encouraging, and suggest that Personal Zen or games like it could be used as a tool to help people reduce their anxiety levels.

Anxiety is a widespread problem in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 18 percent of Americans suffer yearly anxiety. The NIMH also estimates that around one quarter of those who have yearly anxiety meet the criteria for severe anxiety. However, treatment for anxiety can be expensive and time consuming, and many sufferers fear being judged if they admit that they have a mental disorder.

Games like Personal Zen are attempts to translate technology that therapists are already using in clinical settings into an instantly accessible, personal therapy tool. This kind of tool would not only be cheaper than extended therapy sessions, but would also help patients deal with anxiety as it arises rather than waiting until their next therapy session.

However, Dr. Dennis and the researchers studying this technology caution that Personal Zen is not going to single-handedly cure anxiety. They do not yet know whether the game could have any beneficial effects for people who suffer from severe anxiety, and they are currently researching whether shorter sessions of game-playing could benefit users. Other experts in the field caution that people who are dealing with symptoms of anxiety should still seek professional diagnosis and treatment. Multi-faceted treatment is often the most effective method of dealing with anxiety disorders.

Personal Zen is not the only game and app on the market designed to help people improve or maintain good mental health. An app called ReliefLink is designed to help prevent suicides by allowing users to track their moods, create safety plans and contact help if they need it. Another app called A-CHESS has been found to be effective at helping problem drinkers maintain safe drinking habits or stay sober.

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