Personal zen: an anti-anxiety game

Anxiety can be pretty hard to live with. When anxious you might feel stuck, unable to think or move, sometimes doing something that would make your anxiety even worse. What if you could get rid of all that heart pounding and nervous sweating by just reaching into your pocket, pulling out your phone and playing a simple game? That’s exactly what two professors, Dr. Tracy Dennis and Dr. Laura O’ Toole, from Hunter’s College in New York have done. They have taken the decades of research on cognitive bias modification, brain training and anxiety reduction and turned it into a game called Personal Zen. The game involves fairies, who are either happy or angry which appear randomly on a grassy background. The players have to follow trails made by the happy fairies thereby being led away from the angry fairies which simulate a threat. As they repeatedly play, their brains automatically look for the happy faces and over time this allows them to focus on the positive and tune out the negative, a concept known as attention bias modification training (ABMT). A study on the effectiveness of the game showed that after just 25 minutes of playing the game the players reported less anxiety while performing tasks such as giving a speech or performing sequential mental subtractions. They also reported a sense of relaxation and happiness while playing the game. In contrast to most therapeutic interventions, the fact that this game is so accessible and affordable is an important factor, since retraining the brain is hard work and requires quite a bit of determination and practice. With just a few minutes every day, and a few days every week, it would be possible to alleviate both stress and anxiety by simply following a few fairies.

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