In October of 2018, after being hospitalized for a week due to sepsis from a blood infection, I spent five months recovering at home. IV antibiotics had destroyed my stomach, leading to constant nausea, dry heaving, and frequent trips to the bathroom. I was also anemic, my legs were swollen with fluid, and I could hardly walk from one room to another without becoming winded. Somehow, I found a way to cope, to redirect my mind away from my pain, both physical and mental, and focus it on something fun: a mobile game. The game itself was nothing special. The graphics weren’t really impressive. It wasn’t developed with a huge marketing budget; in fact, many people have never even heard of it. But it helped me every single day as I recovered from the sickest I’ve ever felt.
I’m no stranger to recovery. With a long history of open-heart surgeries, an implanted defibrillator, and a possible heart transplant down the line, I’m no stranger to anxiety or depression either. After the first shock from the defibrillator, I experienced my first panic attack. The gut-wrenching fear, rocking body, and clenched muscles became a daily occurrence for the next five years, while my worries about the future and my mortality triggered depressive thoughts. Medication and therapy got me where I am today, a place anxiety and depression sometimes visit but rarely stay for long.
Now and then, though, certain stressors can pull me backward. This recovery was one of them. Besides the fact that I felt completely awful, it was impossible not to be depressed as I watched my daughters live their lives without much involvement from me. A constant flux of symptoms fueled my anxiety as well. I was always convinced something new was wrong—the infection had reached my heart, I had C. diff or was in arrhythmia. None of those things were true, but I still felt like they were.
Digital Coping Mechanisms
Luckily, I found the tool that kept my panic at bay and distracted me from the sadness and physical symptoms: Cooking Fever, a mobile time-management game. Ironically, I could barely eat. Even when I craved flavor and food, after a few bites into a meal I’d feel nauseated and spend the next hour in pain.
Even so, I cooked every day. Well, digitally that is. I sat in the corner of our sofa, and on my tiny phone screen I grilled lobster, rolled fresh tuna and avocado, and topped ice cream with cherries. As I played, I focused on making sure I didn’t burn the burgers or serve the bok choy to the wrong customer, instead of thinking about my stomachache or temperature. Playing helped me forget my worries.
Deb S., a nonprofit administrator from Massachusetts, had a similar experience when she was hospitalized after emergency surgery. Candy Crush and digital solitaire distracted her from the “bodily horrors of hospitalization”—like surgical wounds and catheters—and psychological stressors, such as seeing other people in pain, witnessing their deaths, and fearing her own. “Sometimes we need to deal with our emotions head on,” Deb says, “but certainly not when we’re in the midst of an immediate, traumatic situation.”
Andrea Braverman, clinical professor of OB/GYN and Psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University, would agree. Whether someone is suffering from a medical illness or a mental one, any activity that offers an escape, even a mobile game, can bring relief. “You want to get away. You’re feeling lousy,” Braverman says. “If you can turn that off for a little bit, that’s rewarding.”
While I was recovering, I had none of my usual sources of pleasure. I had little interest in my typical TV choices and couldn’t enjoy food. Being around my children was depressing because I couldn’t really be with them. My game brought me enjoyment when nothing else could. As Braverman says, these games are “intrinsically rewarding.” The rewards are built right in. I could always look forward to a new restaurant, new foods and equipment, and the pure satisfaction of finally beating a complicated level.
Mindful vs. Mindless Games
The more mindful the game, the better. Sometimes. Braverman says the more the mind is engaged, the more successful an activity will be at distraction. Cooking Fever required concentration and strategy. It was completely engaging and, therefore, effective. If I wanted to reach the next stage, I couldn’t think about anything else while I played.