Those puzzles in your pocket can be a surprisingly effective anxiety distraction technique.
Last week, I was sitting on the runway at Logan International Airport in Boston. I was staring down the barrel of a 6 hour flight to Seattle as one leg of a week-long work trip. (For me, it’s not the heights or safety that bothers me about air travel. It’s the lines, delays, and frequent interruptions — it’s the lack of control. In any case…)
An unexpected flight change prevented me from running through my preferred pre-flight anti-anxiety preparations before heading to the airport. I was already on edge.
When the packed plane powered down on the runway, and the captain’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker to inform us of an indefinite weather delay, it was a candy-loving monster named Om Nom that helped break an escalating chain of anxious thoughts.
I turned off all the notifications and sounds on my phone a few years back. When I check my phone, I do so on my own terms.
Cell phones can be a negative distraction from the physical world around us, our personal relationships, our productivity, and our mental well-being. All the endless scrolling, compulsive checking, buzzing, fidgeting, and phantom ringing isn’t good for our health.
Nevertheless… probably like you, my phone is never too far from hand.
Distraction, like most other things in this word, is neither wholly good or or wholly bad, and has the capacity for positive applications. In times of crisis, distraction can prevent or reverse spiraling anxiety.
A distraction technique is any activity used to redirect intense or uncontrollable thoughts. When you distract yourself, you thwart negative thinking and emotions by deliberately shifting your attention. An effective anxiety distraction engages your senses, stimulates new thoughts, and holds your attention.
Distraction techniques are used and encouraged in many forms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). That being said, distraction is not particularly effective for long-term anxiety control. Distraction it best used as an occasional tactic. It’s one more tool in your tool kit.
To that end, I have found each of these games helpful for diminishing and derailing anxiety. Occupy the fingers and you can occupy the mind.
World of Goo
Superlative: Most Tactile
In World of Goo, you drag and drop goo balls to build structures and complete puzzles.
World of Goo leads the list because it combines several relevant characteristics found in other games on this list:
- Tactile physics
- Both right and left brain problem solving
- Engaging visuals
- Lengthy gameplay
- Good sound design
- Sufficiently challenging
- Fun to play
If you’re new to mobile games, World of Goo is a good place to start for anxiety distraction.
Cut The Rope
Superlative: Most Puzzling
Cut the Rope features the aforementioned Om Nom.
This game has over 100 levels to keep you busy. You can take Cut The Rope at your own pace, but some levels do require quickness. This game requires problem solving skills and good hand finger/eye coordination. Some of the later levels are quite challenging.
Superlative: Most Zen
Prune is the most overtly ‘zen’ game on this list.
Often, when a developer explicitly sets out to make a relaxing game, they miss the mark when it comes to the actual gameplay. Prune, however, gets it right.
In Prune, you trim and direct a growing tree as it branches and blossoms.
Deepening your connection with the natural word is a common element in many anxiety-reducing mindfulness exercises. Playing Prune isn’t the same thing as taking a walk in the woods, but it probably is about as close as you’re going to get to nature by way of flickering rectangle.
Superlative: Most Mindless
The concept is simple: connect rectangles in a six by six grid. That’s it.
Dots is repetitive and deceptively simple. Later levels do require strategy, but Dots is perhaps the most autonomic game on this list. Once you get in a groove, the rectangles feel like they are connecting themselves. Dots’s repetitive and rhythmic gameplay gives it an almost meditative quality.
Superlative: Best Flow
Alto’s Adventure is an “endless side scroller.” You continue to pick us speed as you snowboard down a mountain avoiding trees, cliffs, and other obstacles.
Typically, I prefer not to be rushed when playing a mobile game. However, Alto’s has a nice flow which makes jumping and flipping your way down the mountain particularly satisfying.
Furthermore, anxiety is often accompanied by a false sense of urgency. I find it can be helpful to supplement the urgency of a game for the urgency of of building anxiety.
Superlative: Most Unique
Monument Valley is an architecture-based puzzle game. Each level is a visually striking Escher-like architectural maze.
This unique game has interesting visuals and requires you shift your perspective. Perspective shifting can also be used to mitigate anxiety and panic.
Monument Valley is not a particularly long game, nor would I play it again and again, but it’s illusionary visuals make it worth a spin.
Where’s My Water
Superlative: Most Levels
In Where’s My Water, you cut through dirt to guide water through a maze-like environment with the help of gravity and the city sewer network.
Where’s My Water is long and has plenty of levels. I have played it several times thorough. Where’s My Water has broad appeal and is another good game to get started with if you’re new to mobile games.
Superlative: Most Fun
Even if you’ve never played it, you’ve heard of it.
Angry Birds has over a dozen editions and spinoffs. With over 3 billion downloads, this game owns the title of “most downloaded freemium game of all time.” There is even an Angry Birds animated feature film.
All those downloads aren’t be wrong. Angry Birds is certifiably distracting.
Superlative: Most Immersive
LIMBO is dark, weird, and freaky.
Be forewarned: LIMBO is not for everyone.
LIMBO has been called a “trial and death” game, and players will encounter many simulated deaths and dismemberments before completing the story. If these themes disturb you, do not download LIMBO.
So why does LIMBO make it onto the list? Truth be told, I hesitated to add it because of the subject matter. However, I personally found it helpful, so I think I might be a valuable distraction to others. LIMBO is very immersive. The games’ exceptional art direction and sound arrangement holds the the player’s full attention. Immersive experiences can be helpful for redirecting one’s attention.
Superlative: Most Left Brain
At first blush, Threes! seems like a math game, but there’s virtually no calculation involved. Even for the arithmetically challenged (such as myself), this game is intuitive and easy to pick up.
Superlative: Most Cosmic
Many of the games on this list allow you to play at your own pace, but Osmos is the only game where you can slow down the actual speed of gameplay at will.
For nearly a century now, physicists have been seeking to reconcile the general mechanics of the universe with the quantum mechanics of the microscopic. Osmos is not likely to win a Nobel prize, but it does give manipulating ‘motes’ a very cosmic feel.
Osmos is not particularly demanding and has a trance-inducing-like quality when played at slow speeds.
Six! feels simultaneously new and familiar. Basically, Six! is an upside down version of Tetris combined with Jenga.
The Challenges mode seemingly goes on forever.
Superlative: Most Gameplay Twists
BADLAND is a level-based sidescroller.
Unlike Alto’s Adventure, BADLAND game does not perpetually build in intensity
BADLAND is full of interesting gameplay surprises. It does not require a ton of strategy and is not terribly long.
Supurlative: Most Researched
Tetris is the granddaddy of them all. You can probably hear the iconic music playing in your head right now.
Tetris even has some documented therapeutic applications. Tetris therapy has been shown to diminish the lasting impacts of post traumatic stress. According to researchers, the visual-spatial demands of playing Tetris disrupt the formation of the mental imagery involved in flashbacks associated with PTSD.Some people also report using Tetris for “visual overwriting” just before bed to improve sleep quality.
Tetris is like an old friend. It has probably been awhile since you played, but you’ll be glad when you reconnect. It’s the same old game.
If you have not used mobile games as an anxiety distraction technique, give them a try.
For most mobile games, I turn off the game music, but leave the sound effects on. That way, I can listen to a podcast or music as an additional layer of distraction.
If you have used mobile games for anxiety distraction, and have suggestions for other readers, let us know in the comments.
One more tool in the tool kit.