Video Games, Distraction, and Anxiety Reduction

Do you play video games? Have you experienced a time when you were playing, when you were completely absorbed in the game, and not thinking about whatever was on your list for that day? Or concerns that you might have? Or perhaps even anxious feelings that you couldn’t shake? Almost every time, right? Well you are certainly not alone.

Researchers studying video games suggest that video game engagement can be both self-suppressing (suppressing those normal, sometimes negative, daily thought patterns), and self-expanding (enhancing wellbeing through new experiences)(Stenseng, Rise, & Kraft, 2012). In fact, given the ability of video games to provide high levels of immersion and engagement, they may provide an ideal engagement activity for individuals who might therapeutically benefit from distraction from thought patterns, and enhancement of psychological states. As such, this distraction may be an ideal activity to combat anxiety.

A recent study examined the role of video game play in reducing anxiety for a group of children scheduled for upcoming surgery (Patel et al., 2006). The researchers found that in a study of 112 children, that both preoperative and postoperative anxiety was significantly reduced in children who played video games prior to surgery. This is in comparison to children who had either a parent present, and children who had analgesics prior to surgery. The researchers suggested that video games provide an ideal and pleasurable distraction, which provides anxiety relief through cognitive and motor absorption. Dr Meghan Walker explains how video games might achieve this outcome:

“Video games were in fact more successful at managing anxiety than the best available medications. Anxiety, like pain or cravings, works on the spotlight theory of attention — the more we focus on the problem, the worse it gets. Anxious thoughts fuel or perpetuate the physiological process and usually push the anxiety response from a place of assistance (think exam preparation) to a state of worry. Fear is a response to something that is actually going wrong (an important adaptive mechanism) whereas anxiety is a response to something that could go wrong. Video games were useful because they distracted the brain sufficiently that it shifted the spotlight and quelled the perpetuation of worry. In essence, the brain had better things to do than focus on potential (not real) outcomes.” – Dr Meghan Walker, Huffington Post

How about you? Do you play games to help you cope with anxiety? We would love to hear what has worked for you.

Patel, A., Schieble, T., Davidson, M., Tran, M. C., Schoenberg, C., Delphin, E., & Bennett, H. (2006). Distraction with a hand-held video game reduces pediatric preoperative anxiety. Pediatric Anesthesia, 16(10), 1019-1027.

Stenseng, F., Rise, J., & Kraft, P. (2012). Activity engagement as escape from self: The role of self-suppression and self-expansion. Leisure Sciences, 34(1), 19-38.

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