In the pursuit of peace of mind, an unlikely hero has emerged: Tetris, the delightfully '80s tile-matching puzzle game that new research suggests may help ease people through periods of anxiety. In case you (somehow) missed it, the game asks players to align pixelated blocks into clear, unbroken rows of ten squares, but it may be more than just a way to kill time on the subway. Researchers have found that playing Tetris can help you destress during periods of uncertainty, making waiting a tiny bit more manageable.
Many major life events — like awaiting test scores, hearing back from a job application, or, uh, anticipating election results — are preceded with what researchers call “a worrisome period of uncertainty.” But the crux of the study, published in the journal Emotion, was that people often rely on ineffective coping strategies to deal with that unfortunate waiting period.
Enter the concept of “flow,” a psychological term for the mental state of a person fully immersed in a pursuit, kind of like being in the zone. "The state of flow is one where you're completely absorbed or engaged in some kind of activity," Kate Sweeny, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and one of the study authors, told NPR. "You lose your self-awareness, and time is just flying by."
Tetris, bewitching game that it is, is an example of an activity that can get people into flow. The game has long been of interest to researchers, linked with everything from improving cognitive function in the brain to helping reduce drug cravings. Through three studies, one experimental and two of them observational, Sweeny and her colleagues tested whether flow-inducing activities like Tetris served as a better distraction for people and helped with the waiting experience.
In the first observational study, 125 law school grads who experienced more flow while waiting for their bar exam results reported less worry during their waiting, as well as fewer negative emotions and more positive ones. When asked to pinpoint their flow-inducing activities, though, the grads were often unable to accurately identify those activities. The second observational study, focused on doctoral-level students in the academic job market over time, echoed the first study’s findings.
The experimental third study actually measured the effects of engaging in a flow-inducing activity. Over 300 undergrads, who were told they’d be waiting for peers to rate their physical attractiveness, played Tetris while awaiting their scores. "I know, it's kind of cruel, but we found [telling people they’d be rated on their looks was] a really effective way to get people stressed out," Sweeny told NPR.
The experiment repeated the first two studies’ findings, and though playing the game did not reduce worry, it slightly boosted positive emotions and helped mitigate negative emotions during the waiting period. "It wasn't a huge difference, but we think it's noticeable," Sweeny told NPR. "And over time, it can add up."
Consider the last time you were waiting to hear back from something important. Your first inclination may have been to fixate on all the possibilities, but what this research suggests is that a better strategy may be to distract yourself with an absorbing and mentally-stimulating task instead. While Tetris, or any flow-inducing activity, may not be the silver bullet for coping with stress or anxiety, finding something to busy yourself with, whether it’s playing Tetris or going for a jog, certainly won’t hurt.