Video games may treat depression, anxiety

Denise Dador Image
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Video games may treat depression, anxiety
Video games may be a fun and easy way to help treat people who have depression and anxiety.

After a long day at work, Cheri Plevek loves to sit in front of her computer and load up her favorite video game. When she heard about a new breed of games designed to help her fight her lifelong battle against depression and anxiety, she wanted to give them a try.

"You have quests that you do and you earn points by doing something as simple as getting up out of your chair and getting moving, to calling a friend, hugging yourself," Plevek said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 15 million Americans suffer from major depressive disorder and 40 million from anxiety. Psychologists are looking at these games as a new way to reach those in need.

"A lot of them look exactly the same as games that someone could play just for fun. So they may have cartoon characters, they could have missions, but embedded in that game are treatment mechanisms," said Dr. Tracy Dennis, a psychology professor.

Dennis designed one such game, called Personal Zen. She said preliminary findings show after playing the game for 20 minutes, the brain starts processing negative information differently.

"We can train an anxious person to pay less attention to threat, to pay more attention to positive things in the game and then that eventually transfers to how they look at and pay attention in the real world," Tracy said.

It's an idea that's prompted the National Institutes of Health to fund a study researching the effectiveness of one game.

Dr. Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist, believes that games may appeal to those reluctant to seek out treatment.

"People resist less if it feels like a game, if it feels like fun. We can train people even while they're having fun," Bea said.

But both Dennis and Bea agreed more research is needed before doctors are at the point where they'll start prescribing these games as part of their treatment plan.

As for Plevek, she said these games are a great complement to her regular therapy.

"When you add in the activities, quests and other things that help you raise your mood and feel better about yourself, it's just a joy, a joy to play," Plevek said.