Playing this mobile game for 25 minutes may reduce anxiety

By Aditi Pai
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anxiety gameAfter just 25 minutes of playing a game, which is based on a cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training (ABMT), researchers found a reduction of anxiety levels in stressed people, according to a study of 75 adults published in Clinical Psychological Science.

In the game, which researchers have not given a name to, users try to avoid "threatening stimulus" such as an angry face, and instead focus on happy and neutral faces.

Two characters, which the study referred to as sprites, one with an angry face and one with a neutral face appeared on the screen for a short period of time. Then, the sprites simultaneously disappeared into the grass and participants were prompted to follow the trail that the sprites left with their fingers.

In the ABMT-based version of the game, the trail of grass always followed the neutral-faced sprite. In the other version, the trail of grass followed the neutral-faced sprite half the time and followed the angry-faced sprite the remaining time.

"Millions of people suffering from psychological distress fail to seek or receive mental health services. A key factor here is that many evidence-based treatments are burdensome -- time consuming, expensive, difficult to access, and perceived as stigmatizing," lead researcher Tracy Dennis said in a statement. "Given this concerning disparity between need and accessibility of services, it is crucial for psychological researchers to develop alternative treatment delivery systems that are more affordable, accessible, and engaging."

The participants were recruited from an Introduction to Psychology course at a university in New York City and all scored high on an anxiety survey. They all played the game for 25 to 45 minutes and then were asked to deliver a speech to the researchers while being recorded, which they found to be a stressful situation. After the speech, participants filled out a mood questionnaire.

Researchers found that the participants that played the ABMT-based version of the game were less nervous when they spoke in front of the researchers, and participants who played the game reported less negative feelings afterwards.

In future tests, the researchers plan to study whether shorter bursts of gameplay would be beneficial to reducing anxiety. Dennis added that he wants to study whether using the app in 10 minute sessions over the course of a month would reduce stress in pregnant women with moderate anxiety.

In January, Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs partnered with Pfizer to conduct a study of Akili’s iOS-based game, Project Evo, in the hopes of using the game to detect indications of Alzheimer’s in healthy individuals. At the time, Akili’s VP of Research and Development Eddie Martucci told MobiHealthNews the company plans to expand this technology to work with other mental health conditions, including depression and ADHD.