Playing Games on Your Phone Helps You Chill More Than Stress-Busting Apps

Could Minecraft be your moment of zen?

Although mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, and 10% Happier are growing at a good clip—some estimates put the market at about $32 million per quarter—new research suggests there may be a less purposeful way to chill out even more effectively: by playing on your phone.

Published in JMIR Mental Health, the study recruited 45 college students and gave them all a 15-minute math test to trigger a higher level of stress, then split them into three groups. One played a shape-fitting game called “Block! Hexa Puzzle,” a second used the Headspace mindfulness app, and the third was given fidget-spinners, with each group participating in their activities for 10 minutes.

Those who played the game reported feeling energized. But those in the other two groups had the opposite reaction, reporting feeling more tired and even exhausted in some cases.

In a second part of the study, 20 working professionals were recruited and again divided into the groups, but this time were asked to play the games, listen to the mindfulness app, or use the fidget-spinner for 10 minutes after arriving home from work. They did this for five days and recorded how they felt after.

Those who played the game reported feeling more relaxed by the end of the week than those in the other two groups. In fact, over the course of the study, the games participants reported that their relaxation level increased each more each day.

“The takeaway message for us is that, far from being a waste of time, even very simple casual games have the potential to be helpful in dissipating work stress, and are more effective than a mindfulness app,” lead researcher Emily Collins, Ph.D., of the University of Bath told Bicycling.

She said the difference is likely related to the four factors needed for successful recovery after stress or a day of work: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and a sense of control.

Mindfulness apps may prompt relaxation, Collins said, but games tend to have all four, since people tend to feel like they’re developing skills when playing a game, giving that sense of mastery. Also, that necessary detachment means you’re not thinking about work—a condition that may not be completely possible during a mindfulness exercise.

Previous research done by Collins and her colleagues suggests that games that are immersive and with strong narratives—defined by researchers as having a high degree of action, feature a storyline, or played along with multiple players—can be especially helpful for multiple components of recovery.

Bottom line: If you’re feeling stressed and don’t have time for a workout—another proven stress-buster—the answer might be right in your hands. Whip out your smartphone and fire up a game that tests your skill and immerses your attention. You don’t want to go much beyond the 10 minutes used in the study though: Prior research has shown that using your phone too much can cause your anxiety levels to rise.

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