The following is a guest post written by social psychologist Dr. Jordan LaBouff.
Fantasy has always been important for me. Since my elementary school librarian suggested I read The Hobbit, I have often had part of my mind living grand adventures in some fantasy world be it a book, movie, or video game.
One of the many reasons fantasy can be so captivating is that it allows us to imagine ourselves as strong, capable, and successful, even when we may not feel that way about ourselves in the real world. Researchers have begun to investigate the power of fantasy and games in therapies to treat conditions like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
People with depression often ruminate, focusing inward and perseverating on their own negative feelings and anxieties. Rumination is often stressful and can worsen symptoms. Participating in fantasy allows the brain to be distracted, even momentarily, from the sadness and helplessness that depression can cause. Finding distractions can significantly help alleviate depression.
Researchers in New Zealand developed an interactive fantasy game called SPARX which helps supplement therapy for clinical depression by delivering basic principles of cognitive behavioral therapy through a series of challenges a player completes with their avatar to save the fantasy world from GNATs (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts).
In their study of more than 180 adolescents seeking help for depressive symptoms, those who immersed themselves in this fantasy game had significantly higher remission rates than those who received therapeutic treatment as normal. Further, those benefits persisted at a three-month follow up, suggesting that fantasy, focused in the right way, might be an effective tool for therapies targeting depressive symptoms.
Previous research has shown that positive gaming experiences trigger the release of endorphins and dopamine, both of which produce feelings of pleasure and well-being, and a recent meta-analysis suggests a reliable, moderate benefit for fantasy and game-based digital interventions.
Of course, too much or the wrong kinds of fantasy can be bad – for example, when these feelings of success from fantasy prevent instead of promote real-world success it can lead to symptoms of addiction and increases in depression.
However, when used well, fantasy and imagination may have the potential to strengthen existing therapies and help some people struggling with disorders like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
Image credit: Michael Neel