Amid all the talk about the game craze’s numbers, there have also been suggestions that the app can actually help people with depression and social anxiety.
While it’s too early to know whether Pokémon Go will help long-term with the treatment of anxiety or depression, the game has successfully encouraged people to go outside, walk, and interact more socially. The app has the potential to benefit people who would not otherwise be motivated or able to leave the house due to fear or anxiety.
The use of virtual and augmented reality technology in medicine to improve psychological and physical health is not new and has an emerging role in the treatment of many disorders. Virtual reality games are currently being used and researched to treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as to alleviate pain, and even to improve rehabilitation after strokes.
Augmented reality is slightly different than virtual reality because it doesn’t transport you into a new space but keeps you in the real world. Virtual objects, such as the Pokémon in this game, are blended with real objects using GPS. Augmented reality technology has been studied, though less so, as a form of exposure therapy to treat phobias as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here, then, are some of the psychological benefits of Pokémon Go:
- It’s fun, so it provides positive reward in and of itself. Pokémon Go is fun and simple to play. This provides incentive for people to get off the couch and walk around their neighborhood. A basic concept in cognitive behavioral therapy is behavioral activation, which means that if you can go out and experience the positive rewards of healthy behavior, like going to the gym, then you are more likely to feel better and create a positive feedback loop to pursue more healthy behavior.
- The game is structured with clearly defined goals and step-wise levels. Clear structure, immediate feedback, and attainable goals are all very helpful, especially for those with depression, to keep people interested and engaged. A lack of structure can keep people with low energy, fatigue, lack of motivation, and depressed mood in a rut. By creating incremental goals, the game encourages feelings of effectiveness and moving forward.
- It’s an easy conversation-starter and can help ease social anxiety. Within an hour of playing Pokémon Go outside, multiple people walking by me started talking about the game. Social anxiety and depression are commonly marked by being socially withdrawn and feeling uncomfortable around other people. With social anxiety, it’s common to feel like you don’t fit in or that other people will judge you.
- It encourages walking by giving you an incentive to discover and collect new Pokémon and balls to catch them—and it requires you to walk certain distances to hatch “eggs” that you collect. Physical exercise is known to effectively aid depression and overall health, and the app is a useful incentive to go out and walk more.
- You’ll notice things around you that you didn’t before. In the game, you collect items at Pokéstops, which are around the neighborhood in places like sculptures, architectural details, murals, or buildings. While the game does not expand awareness and attention in the same way that meditation or mindfulness and meditation does, you will notice more details in your environment that you typically overlook.
How the pros and cons of the game weigh out over time has yet to be studied scientifically, but so far, fans of the game are out having fun and exploring. If you’re finding Pokemon Go for anxiety treatment to be helpful for your anxiety, depression, or stress, please share your experiences in the comments!