This Stress App Actually Helps Relieve My Intense Anxiety

There are oodles of recommended techniques to relieve stress and anxiety — meditation, bubble baths, vacays. One of the most important ways to decompress is to step away from the screen and, you know, get back in touch with the whole human interaction thing. But, when I heard about Personal Zen, an iPhone app that’s been scientifically proven to relieve stress and anxiety, I lunged for my phone faster than you can say “Xanax.”

I’m one of those dedicated train wrecks: The only time I’m not filled with a sense of panic and dread is when I’m drunk or unconscious. My anxiety gives me anxiety, and on the rare occasions where I do feel half decent, I spend my day checking for anvils. According to research on the app published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, however, playing Personal Zen for 25 minutes can reduce anxiety — which means there’s a good chance this app and I will become romantically involved one day.

“Millions of people suffering from psychological distress fail to seek or receive mental health services,” lead researcher Tracy Dennis of Hunter College said in a statement. “A key factor here is that many evidence-based treatments are burdensome — time-consuming, expensive, difficult to access and perceived as stigmatizing.” Indubitably, which is where the app comes in.

The game’s based on an anxiety treatment called “attention bias modification training,” where you’re trained to ignore a threatening stimulus (like an angry face) and focus instead on the nonthreatening (like a happy face). As for the game itself, I was surprised at the impact it had on my anxiety level. Considering how simplistic it is, I thought a few minutes in I’d be bored, but the exact opposite turned out to be true.

Here’s the gist: You’re shown a grassy field and two blue faces appear — one happy, one angry. Both bury themselves in the grass, and a row of taller grass sprouts up alongside the happy face’s hole. Your job? To trace the line of grass with your finger.

Seriously. That’s it. In looking for more information on the app, some reviewers found it to be insanely boring and couldn’t tolerate it for very long, but to me that’s the point: The repetitive nature of the game not only encourages you to focus on nonthreatening stimuli, but gives your mind and body the breathing room necessary to not think — about your anxiety, about your stress, about reaching another goal. Truth be told, if there were any more going on in the game — levels, goals, speed, conflict — it would just be another thing to stress me out.

While the study found playing for 25 minutes was the sweet spot, researchers are currently investigating if shorter stints (like playing for just 10 minutes at a time) would have the same anxiety-reducing impact. “Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health,” said Dennis. “Our hope is to develop highly accessible and engaging evidence-based mobile intervention strategies that can be self-curated by the individual as personal tools to promote mental wellness.”

That’s not to say games like this will replace traditional methods of dealing, like medication or therapy, but for those of you who are going a more natural, less clinical route Personal Zen would make a fabulous addition to your arsenal.

A version of this story was published December 2014. 

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