Need to Relax? Smartphone Games Are Great for Stress Relief, Study Finds

Warm up your thumbs - a new study says the best way to decompress after a long day at work may not be meditation apps like "Headspace," but rather digital cell phone games, like "Tetris."

According to the study published in the JMIR Mental Health, smartphone shape-fitting games like Tetris are better at relieving peoples' stress than the mindfulness apps that prompt users on breathing and meditation-type activities.

The study conducted at University College London and The University of Bath, used two experiments to collect its data. First, 45 study participants were asked to complete a 15-minute math test and then given either a smartphone game, or a mindfulness app. A third group of students were given a fidget spinner to act as a control group.

Study participants who were given the game ("Block! Hexa Puzzle"), reported feeling more energized and less tired afterward, while those who used the mindfulness app and figet-spinners reported the opposite effects. In fact, their reported "energetic arousal" levels appeared to decline.

A second experiment asked 20 separate study participants to either play a shape-fitting smartphone game or use a mindfulness app after returning home from work for five days in a row. Again, the results showed that those participants who played the shape-fitting smartphone game after work reported feeling significantly more relaxed than those who used the meditation apps. In fact, the study participants who followed a beginner's course on a mindfulness app continued to score progressively less well on their relaxation readings through the five-day study.

"Far from feeling guilty about being absorbed by their phone, people who play such games after a stressful day at work should know they are likely to be gaining a real benefit," study co-author Professor Anna Cox said.

The digital games appeared to fill four criteria necessary for post-work recovery:

  1. They tend to be relaxing.
  2. They provide opportunities for mastering a new skill
  3. They are highly immersive and distracting
  4. They allow people to feel in control.

Lead author Dr Emily Collins, of the University of Bath, who started the research while at UCL, said: "To protect our long-term health and well-being, we need to be able to unwind and recuperate after work. Our study suggests playing digital games can be an effective way to do this."

Previous studies had indicated a link between post-work recovery and playing games, but this study is the first to try and establish a causal connection.

The authors also noted another correlation in the data that showed the more study participants enjoyed playing the game, the more benefits it provided in terms of "post-work recovery."

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