A surprisingly basic yet targeted brain game quells anxiety by helping people focus, according to a new study.

In research led by Michigan State University’s Jason Moser, anxious college students who completed a video game-like exercise that involved identifying shapes stayed more focused and showed less anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, and the peak time for the disorders is ages 18-25. While the research is the first scientific step toward addressing the effects of distraction on anxiety, it could eventually lead to an everyday solution. Says Moser, associate professor of clinical psychology:

“Down the line we could roll out an online or mobile game based on this research that specifically targets distraction and helps people stay focused and feel less anxious.”

Improved Concentration

In the study, participants with both low and high anxiety completed a focus task in which they identified a specific shape in a series of shapes, for example, a red circle amid red squares, diamonds, and triangles. Afterward they were given an exercise designed to distract them, by mixing in different colored shapes, but it didn’t.

The focus task, Moser says, had improved concentration and lessened anxiety for the anxious participants, in particular, even after the distraction exercise.

There are many so-called brain-training games on the market, Moser notes, but they are highly controversial and have no independent scientific proof they help sharpen focus, let alone reduce anxiety.

“There have been other studies of video game-type interventions for anxiety,” he adds, “but none have used a specific and simple game that targets distraction.”

Jason S. Moser, Tim P. Moran, Andrew B. Leber Manipulating attention to non-emotional distractors influences state anxiety: A proof of concept study in low- and high-anxious college students Behavior Therapy doi:10.1016/j.beth.2015.07.001

Photo: NBIO/flickr

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