How effective can mobile games be for alleviating anxiety?

21 October 2015

Janice Sinson Award winner Quynh Pham shares her story of evaluating a mobile game which claims to help alleviate anxiety, panic and hyperventilation:

Digital health has never been more in vogue. The 3,000-plus mental health apps on the Apple and Google Play app stores show that mental health certainly hasn’t been left out of the equation. Yet less than 1% of those 3,000 apps have been evaluated.

So when games studio Playlab London asked me to rigorously trial their game, it struck me as an admirable risk.

The game - Flowy - delivers breathing retraining exercises to alleviate anxiety, panic and hyperventilation symptoms in people with common mental health disorders. The study was the first to asses the feasibility and clinical effectiveness of such a mobile health game. Making this work, therefore, was important in setting precedence for best practice in the mobile health field.

All study measures were obtained remotely through both app log data and an in-house online assessment platform, thereby relieving participants of having to attend traditional face-to-face measurement visits as well as introducing a novel approach to trial data collection.

I adhered to an atypical study design framework for mobile health research that focused on the patient-centered model of care. My evaluation methodology was grounded in the belief that people are more than their disorders, which informed my decision to add engagement, acceptability, quality of life and usability measures to capture deeper data on a patient’s journey with Flowy through their disorder.

The trial results showed that Flowy was an engaging and acceptable intervention for managing anxiety, panic and hyperventilation. Participants perceived Flowy as a fun and useful intervention, proactively used Flowy as part of their care, and would recommend Flowy to family and friends.

One participant said: “I just wanted to stress how important I think the app could be in helping people like myself deal with anxiety. For me it’s changed my life completely.”

The positive results of this trial are an important first step towards highlighting the potential use of games as one component of an integrated approach to healthcare. That approach must combine physiological and behavioral interventions to aid patients in the prevention, treatment, and recovery from common mental health disorders.

I am grateful that the Flowy study is being recognized for the Janice Sinson Award and share this joy with the 63 incredible participants who made the study possible.