Pokemon Go : Is it as helpful for social anxiety and depression as the media claims it to be?

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‘Gotta catch em’ all’

For an app that has been praised for (albeit unintentionally) helping sufferers of social anxiety, Pokémon Go‘s catchphrase is fittingly one that promises rewards and suggests a progression based on capturing and training these illusive little mini beasts.

Yet, its approach to gaming is not one that is completely foreign to the mental health community. Virtual reality games have already and continue to be  ‘researched to treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as to alleviate pain, and even to improve rehabilitation after strokes’ for instance. So taking into consideration that the app’s user base is about to surpass that of Twitter,(at least among Android users) there is clearly promise in its ability to provide some solace to the mentally afflicted.

In fact, Pokémon Go actually works in a similar way to CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), in which there is a psychological term called ‘behavioural activation’. What this means is that if you can ‘go out and experience the positive rewards of healthy behavior […] then you are more likely to feel better and create a positive feedback loop to pursue more healthy behaviour’, and in a franchise such as this one, your reward comes every time you capture and train a wild Pokémon.

However is the game as therapeutic as the media would have you believe? That is the question I wish to answer. And more importantly, as revolutionary as it might seem for helping those with psychological problems, does it run the risk of generalising the nature of mental illness altogether?

First let’s take a look at the positives…

Let me start off by saying that to deny the games impact on people’s mental health all over the world would be foolhardy, as numerous tweets like the ones on this site illustrate, or, if you’d prefer, just take a look at this video below;

In short, it has bought us all together in a completely unprecedented way. People of all ages, race, class and sex  are now communicating with each other precisely because of the augmented reality aspect of the game -for those that don’t know the game uses your smartphone and GPS to overlay the physical world around you with these virtual creatures. So in a sentence, players are forced to actually go outside into the world and explore their neighbourhoods;this is a technique which is worlds away from the playing format of most games out there.

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Though as much as it has been praised for being revolutionary in its ‘unique’ game play structure, there have been others before it. There are a collection of apps out there that claim to be mood altering, and yet have failed to catch on, with fewer people continuing them to use them past the first week of release. Even Ingress , a game produced by Niantic, the makers of Pokémon Go, used a similar structure – except instead of finding Pokemon, players have to find  and capture portals for their team .

The main difference between these titles and Pokémon Go is that the latter has caught on in an explosive and far more imaginative way. The main reasons for this are due to it ‘centered around a theme and cartoon that is non-threatening and kawaii’ and also because of its reliance on 1990s nostalgia. In what other context would you see two strangers from entirely different social backgrounds come together and socialise?  Even if it is by using lure modules to attract other players to your vicinity and going on a quest to capture the endearing, if elusive Bulbasaur or the fire breathing Charizard.

That’s one of the most appealing things about this app – it allows people to meet other human beings with little risk of triggering their anxiety. They have something in common to talk about,  meaning there is less chance of triggering irrational fears such as ‘I don’t fit in’ or ‘These people despise me‘, and who can fault the game for acting as a form of social lubricant in ways such as this. I know I can’t.

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Pokemon Go, bringing people together, one Snorlax at a time

This is not to mention the actual physical benefits there are in playing the game. This of course has a direct impact on your mood by reducing loneliness and increasing self esteem. Indeed, research has suggested that ‘even a 10-minute walk can have a measurable, positive effect on mood’ – a more than sufficient amount of time to explore your neighbourhood whilst bagging one or more of these little ( or some cases, not so little) critters along the way.

Does social media coverage of Pokemon Go simplify the complex nature of mental illness?

I can already hear the enraged cries of committed players as they protest towards the game that has bought so much enjoyment to their lives.

Yet hear me out.

I personally suffer with social anxiety. As any other sufferer will know it can be a severely debilitating disorder which makes communicating with people difficult- and that is putting it mildly. Yet, the more news stories I read about Pokémon Go, the more I get the impression that everybody who suffers with this mental illness is someone who will not venture beyond the safety of their front door. Or at least, they find immense difficulty in doing so.

This is simply not true.

Speaking as someone who teaches young children on a daily basis , I work in an often stressful environment surrounded by around extroverts.  Yet, as I covered extensively in my article about mental illness in the workplace, being able to work does not mean I am not subject to the symptoms of this disorder. I just hide it like so many others – the truth is that every day is an internal struggle which does not end until I reach the safety of my home.

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Is this what social anxiety disorder looks like for everyone?

While I am not denying that many sufferers of this disorder do find it more difficult to leave the house than I do, I do feel slightly uncomfortable that the media seem to be painting social anxiety in such a generalised fashion.

However you could accuse me of finding fault where there is none. After all, the game raising awareness of mental health issues either way is it not? Even better, it is raising awareness of.how people can potentially help alleviate the symptoms of their disorder. Considering the overtly negative stories out there surrounding mental illness, this in itself is a promising development!

So is Pokemon Go actually a replacement for therapy? Can I disregard my prescription of antidepressants completely?

Well, in short the answer is a concrete no. A big no. While there are evidently a lot of benefits to downloading and playing the app, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it should not be the sole crutch for your anxiety/depression. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • This game is currently in its early stage of release, so it is important not to be too premature with people’s excitement at this game. Let’s wait and see if its claims stand the test of time first.
  • If you do play the app, make sure that you set yourself a time limit (say around 30 minutes), as by doing otherwise and playing it for too long a time, you run the risk of making it your only interaction with the outside world,
  • It places your mind in a blended reality state, as your eyes are in the phone focusing on something that is not really there. For people who experience psychotic symptoms and have difficulty distinguishing between what is real or not,playing Pokémon Go could exacerbate this issue.
  • For the above reason, playing this game might get you outside, but it does not allow you to fully appreciate your surroundings, thus making it less effective than say, mindfulness or meditation.

In summary, I will quote Ben Michaelis, PhD, an evolutionary clinical psychologist , who says that  ‘games shouldn’t be seen as a cure, but as a useful tool,’. He also emphasizes that it is still important to work with a mental health professional to help your condition.

Who knows. Maybe in the future there will be an app that will provide with us therapy so effective that we won’t have need for human beings to administer it – it would certainly help with the current overlong waiting times there are for mental health treatment.

Instead lets see this app as a stepping stone for your journey towards recovery , rather than the instantaneous relief from depression/anxiety that is being uncomfortably perpetuated by the media at large.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off outside to try and find myself a Pikachu. Only for about 30 minutes mind. Then I’ll just admire the setting sun before heading back home.

 

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11 thoughts on “Pokemon Go : Is it as helpful for social anxiety and depression as the media claims it to be?

  1. I am a casual Pokemon Go player (e.g. as and when the childrens’ routines let me!) and can’t say personally it has done anything particularly positive for my anxiety directly; what it has done is made pushing the double buggy on longer journeys more interesting, both catching Pokemon and actually noticing things in my area I hadn’t before thanks to all the Pokestops.

    Good luck catching that Pikachu!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Abifer. Thanks for commenting first of all. Secondly it is nice to hear from someone who’s anxiety hasn’t been positively impacted by this app. Out of context that sounds really horrible – yet it is necessary to hear from everyone who social anxiety affects. Not only the positive experiences with the Pokemon Go game.

    I’m glad that at least it has encouraged you to explore outside more. ‘veI had a similar reaction to you. It’s probably because my anxiety only arises when it comes to large groups of people. I can travel more or less without issue.

    If you don’t mind me asking, how does your anxiety effect you in day to day life?

    Haha thanks! I’m getting more spearows at the moment however! That brings back memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 🙂 I have two daughters and a niece who are heavily into this. Definitely a nostalgia thing! But you’re right, it’s having all sorts of positive benefits at the moment, simply because it’s getting people out and about and moving.

    “They have something in common to talk about, meaning there is less chance of triggering irrational fears such as ‘I don’t fit in’…”

    This speaks volumes to me on a ‘social anxiety’ level or even just basic shyness of the ‘I’ve no idea what to talk about with these people’ kind. As such, I think you are absolutely right to challenge the assumption that people with social anxiety are unable to leave the house. Social anxiety can take many forms. It can also rise and fall like the waves.

    However, as a self-confessed introvert with sensory processing issues caused by ME/CFS, I can’t help feeling that there is another assumption that needs challenging here… which is that going out and socialising with people is necessarily a good thing and that spending time alone isn’t. If I spend more than a few hours a week with people, it exhausts me. In fact, I quickly reach the point where I am no longer able to understand what they are saying. Also, the more exhausted I am, the more miserable I feel. So, for me, being with people is not necessarily a good thing. And I suspect that there are many other introverts out there for whom the same is true, albeit to a lesser degree because they don’t have ME/CFS or ASD or similar. But how often is this taken into account when discussing mental health issues?

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  4. Hi Ros. It’s good to hear that your two daughters and niece are getting so much out of it! It’s surprisingly addictive I’ve found!

    Thank you for validating my point about the anxiety stereotype it perpetuates. For instance, I went for walk playing the game in my local park yesterday, yet whenever a stranger passed me I felt inclined to shield what I was doing from them – so it’s hardly an elixir to my specific problems with anxiety! It is nothing to be ashamed off. It’s a game I sometimes play to pass the time. Yet my anxiety whispers negative thoughts in my head- ‘they will judge you negatively for playing a child’s game’ etc

    You also raise a very valid point. We live in an extroverted orientated society that often undervalues and shoves aside the introverts that inhabit it. I am also highly introverted and after work (I work as a TA at a local nursery) I can’t help but withdraw away from people within the safety and calm of my bedroom. So I agree – being around people is not always beneficial to our conditions – in fact it can aggravate them in the worse case scenario.

    This is actually something I want to talk about in a future blog post. How our struggles with out mental health are not helped by society’s judgement of people like us. So many times I have encountered the phrase ‘It’s good to see you coming out of your shell more’ – I know they mean well, but the point is why is being in my ‘shell’ perceived as such a negative thing in the first place?

    Either way, thanks for your detailed and enlightening comment. I do like it when people think of other angles that I tend to overlook in my posts. It helps me improve as a writer!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have mixed feeling about whether or not Pokemon Go is a beneficial to our mental health as the media leads us to believe.

    On one had it is getting people out of the house and into an environment in which we are surrounded by dozens of other people. That is good exposure for people like me, who suffer from social anxiety, and it gets us to leave our comfort zone. And the game is definitely getting us to do more walking, biking and even running. Exercise in general has been proven to improve one’s mental well being, so obviously Pokemon Go can help lessen the effects of mental illnesses.

    The game is putting us into situations that make us uncomfortable, but that is all it does. If others are anything like me, they will go out and be surrounded by all of these strangers who are also playing, but it doesn’t mean that I will talk to them (something that is a major problem for me). Most of the time I feel tense, anxious and vaguely terrified when I go out hunting. I always make sure to go out with my friends. They are like a safety blanket to me, something I can focus on rather than the crowds that surround me.

    In general, I think that playing Pokemon Go can help people with social anxiety, but only to a certain extent. It gives us exposure to situations that would otherwise make us incredible anxious, but it doesn’t solve all of our problems. Pokemon Go isn’t some miraculous fix, but it shouldn’t take the place of therapy nor medication. It’s simply a creative aid in the whole process of overcoming the disorder.

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    1. Hi Emily. I think you worded this better than I did in my actual entry! I do have a pendant for waffling on a bit.

      I agree with everything you say. I have been quite addicted to the game lately and walked for long periods of time because of it – I can’t complain about that aspect of the app.

      Yet I have had many an opportunity to approach other players – but I haven’t. For the reasons you state. I still have to approach and talk to strangers and as much as it nice to know that we will have one thing in common, I don’t see us going on a merry old quest to hunt down an elusive Snorlax!

      I have many friends with their own mental disorders who agree with us. They like how it gives us a reason to go outside and exercise – but that’s it.

      Thanks for your articulate response to my writing! 🙂

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  6. As one who has faced anxiety and has always played the Pokemon Go app, I will chime in some. Is it a help for social anxiety? I think it can have the potential to be, but will it, not so sure. Take a person that has a fear of speaking to others, or in small talk, and then have them go out and catch Pokemon, I do not think they will strike up conversation with another out in the public. I think they would still be shy and anxious around others.

    I do think it can be a great tool to provide those opportunities to people to overcome those fears and anxieties, but that will come down to the choice of the individual on whether they are ready and willing to embrace the change and chaos in the world doing so. This is another tool, but it’s no different than the tools we already have at our disposal now. The internet created them for us. We could always sign up for a meetup on meetup.com, or sign up for a workshop or class somewhere that we can find through google. There has and always will be opportunities for us to go out of our comfort zones to meet new people and do new things. It is up to us on whether or not we want to choose to use them.

    Perhaps for some they will use this app to go out to meet others, I highly doubt, if they were ready to do so, they wouldn’t need the app to do it. Perhaps for some it does allow them to do something they love, and use that as a stepping board to go out and play it in public, and meet others out there. At the very least it may provide people the opportunity to go out into the public to catch some Pokemon. Whether it takes them further than that is up to them.

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  7. Hi Jason. I think you make a very valid point. It really does come down to the individual. I think the only real difference is that Pokemon Go provides a guaranteed topic of interest, which can be helpful to sufferers who (myself included) like the idea of a ‘safety net’ when it comes to conversation topics.

    Funnily enough, I’ve been having a lot of fun playing it lately. Yet despite coming across many other people playing the same game, I still have extreme reservations about approaching them. In other words, the anxiety is still there. So for me, at least, it has no benefits outside of the escapism and exercise it provides as a result of the game-play involved.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Liked by 1 person

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