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Anxiety? There's an App for That

"Gamifying" stress therapy might make treatment a lot more fun.
(Photo: Dirima/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Dirima/Shutterstock)

The future of anxiety treatment may not be pills or therapy sessions, but games on your phone.

Two researchers, one at the City University of New York's Hunter College and the other at CUNY's graduate center, published a study in Clinical Psychological Science this month that looks at the effects of "gamifying" psychological interventions for people prone to stress. They found that a bit of play time on a specially designed mobile app before high-pressure situations reduces stress and boosts composure when the pressure's on.

To test this idea of "gamification," the researchers recruited university students who scored highly on an anxiety test and had each play one of two versions of the same video game on an iPod. The game is kind of weird. Two tear drop-shaped blue genie heads appear on the screen over a grass field, one with a happy face, the other with an angry face. Both heads burrow into the ground, and the player must use a finger to trace their paths as they scurry around beneath the dirt. Points and colorful gems are awarded for quick performances.

"Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health."

The two versions differ because in one, only the happy-faced character leaves behind a trail to be traced, and in the other, the trail appears behind either one of the characters at random each round. The first design is based on a therapeutic approach called “attention-bias-modification training,” which diverts an anxious person's attention away from sources of stress and toward more benign objects (in this case, happy faces). The latter, a placebo version, isn't designed to have any influence.

During the trials, some participants were told to play one of the games for around 25 minutes, others for 40. Then, after gaming, each person had to prepare and deliver a short speech as well as take a math test, all while being video taped in front of two judges. Those who played the therapeutic version of the game appeared less nervous and reported feeling better than participants in the placebo group.

According to the study, 90 million Americans—close to 30 percent of the population—suffer anxiety disorders, but only half ever receive treatment. Therapy is expensive, time-consuming, and stigmatized. So imagine how convenient it would be if a high-anxiety person could boot up an app on their phone every once in a while and practice relaxing while having a little fun.

“Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health,” says Tracy Dennis, one of the researchers, in a press release. She and her colleague are now working on determining whether shorter play times, more akin to the brief moments we spend playing on smartphones in transit or in line at the grocery store, can reduce anxiety just as effectively.