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A Healthier You

Can’t Stop Worrying? Try Tetris To Ease Your Mind


(NPR) – If you’ve ever played Tetris — whether it was at an old-school Gameboy, or just on your iPhone — then you know: It’s 8-bit enchantment.

“Years of my life were lost disappearing into a game of Tetris on my Nintendo system,” says Kate Sweeny, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

But maybe the hours she spent lining those little blocks (“tetriminos”) into perfect rows of 10 weren’t a total waste. Her latest research suggests that Tetris can ease us through periods of anxiety by getting us to a blissfully engrossed mental state thatpsychologists call “flow.”

“The state of flow is one where you’re completely absorbed or engaged in some kind of activity,” Sweeny explains. “You lose your self-awareness, and time is just flying by.”

So say, you’re waiting for a date to text you back, or for your LSAT scores, or — as much of the country will be doing on Tuesday — waiting for the election results. You may be tempted to think obsessively about the possibilities. Instead, Sweeny’s research suggests, you may want to turn off Twitter alerts, and try distracting yourself with a brain game.

The study, published recently in the journal Emotion, focused on people who were waiting for uncertain, potentially life-altering news, and it found that a flow-inducing game of Tetris could help them cope.

Sweeny and her collaborators gathered a group of more than 300 college students and told them their peers would be evaluating how attractive they were. “I know, it’s kind of cruel, but we found it’s a really effective way to get people stressed out,” Sweeny says. While the participants awaited their attractiveness scores, the researchers had them play Tetris.

Some played a painfully slow, easy version of the game — which bored them. Some played an extremely challenging, fast version — which frustrated them. And everyone else played the classic version, which adapts to each player’s individual skill level and gets them into that state of flow.

In the end, everyone experienced a degree of worry. But the third group reported slightly higher levels of positive emotions (on average, about a quarter of a point higher on a five-point scale) and slightly lower levels of negative emotions (half a point lower on a five-point scale).

“It wasn’t a huge difference, but we think it’s noticeable,” Sweeny says. “And over time, it can add up.”

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