For many people with generalized anxiety or panic disorders, treatment typically includes medication, psychotherapy, or both. But in the future, it might become increasingly commonplace for doctors to prescribe a mobile app or game.
Playlab London, a London-based startup, recently developed a mobile game called Flowy that's designed to combat panic attacks. Flowy isn't intended to replace traditional forms of treatment, or provide an alternative to seeing a specialist.
I caught up with Playlab London's cofounder Simon Fox during a recent trip to the UK. Fox decided to develop the game after years of suffering from anxiety.
"It was six years ago. My life disintegrated and it took me a while to learn how to cope," he says. "But that's what gave me the insight for Flowy."
After coming up with the idea, Fox says he interviewed top doctors in the U.K., including mental health professionals and trauma specialists, and incorporated their feedback and insights in the game.
Some 30,000 people around the world have used Flowy since its release in December of 2014. The game is currently in "open beta," meaning the founders are still collecting feedback, and is available for free on Android and iOS. It has not received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be used for clinical purposes.
Flowy is just one of a growing group of mobile apps that aim to help those with mental health issues. San Francisco-based Lantern provides coaching from mental health professionals via its app. It also provides tools to help people with deep breathing, which copious research has shown is a built-in stress reliever.
Can the Flowy Game Help You?
Flowy works by helping people regulate their breathing using tried-and-tested exercises. It also has some behavioral tracking features, so it can be used to track anxiety levels over time.
I gave the game a whirl to see if it could help me cope with stressful events during the workday. The game prompted me to take deep breaths, and then steer a tiny boat through various obstacles by tapping my finger on the screen.
I eventually got the hang of the game, but it took me a few tries. It's not immediately intuitive, despite the step-by-step instructions at the beginning. The first time I used it, I felt perplexed and frustrated that I couldn't figure it out.
It also caused me some anxiety to bump into an obstacle and fail, especially if I was on a rare winning streak. It didn't fill me with calm thoughts to see the "game over" screen. Instead, I felt a competitive urge to beat the system and try again. But that said, I think it did help me breathe a bit slower.
The reviews of the app are fairly mixed. Some people describe it as a "godsend" or "life-saver" that really helped them, and others say it needs a bit more work. One person said it made her feel more "flustered," which isn't a good sign for an app that claims to reduce anxiety. A common criticism among users was that the boat moved a bit too fast -- and I'm inclined to agree with that.
Bottom line: This game may help you, but try it out first during a calmer moment. I eventually got hooked on the game, but just for fun, not for reducing anxiety. And I wouldn't recommend using it for the first time in the midst of a panic attack.
Get the best of KQED's science coverage in your inbox weekly.