Therapists spreading greater appiness

iPhone screenshot ReliefLink app

Have you noticed how many adults seem to be playing games on their mobiles? I’m constantly amazed at the numbers I see wildly flicking their thumbs across phone screens, apparently trying to beat whichever imaginary opponent they’re up against. I have no idea what the popular games are right now, but I’m sure there are those that ‘everyone’s’ playing, depending on how engaging and how well marketed. It looks pretty stressful to me.

But now there’s a new game (i.e. app) which claims to be able to help with mental health – specifically to reduce anxiety.

PersonalZen is based on two animated characters in a field – one of which is serene and friendly and the other irritable and angry, and the aim of the game is trace the path of either creature when it burrows down into the grass.

Developed by researchers from Hunter College and the City University of New York, it purports to train the attention towards the positive. Based on attention bias modification training, it draws on the notion that by learning to ignore threatening stimuli and focus on more comfortable sensations we become less anxious in stressful situations.

In the research conducted to evaluate the app, 78 people who scored highly in an anxiety survey were randomised and played the game (or placebo) before delivering a speech. Those in the active group expressed lower subjective anxiety and lower observed stress reactivity than those in the placebo group.

Mental health apps are not new, but there are still not many based on bona fide scientific research. Last year, a suicide-prevention app called ReliefLink won the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s app contest of the year, raising the profile of ‘gamification’ (the use of video game techniques to educate) in mental health. More a mood-tracking device than a game, ReliefLink tweets users regular affirmations and helps them find local help if they’re contemplating suicide.

Written by Jacqui Hogan