Can Pokemon GO really improve your mental health?

Ever since its release last week, the augmented-reality app Pokemon Go has inundated our social media feeds. While some of the news has been troubling (think players who've injured themselves as they attempted to navigate neighborhoods while staring at their phones), other reports have been surprisingly positive, with users praising the addictive game as a fun way to get more exercise.

Not familiar with Pokemon Go? The app (which you can download for free in iTunes and Google Play) lets you search for digital Pokemon in real-world locations. In other words, players have to physically go outside and chase down characters like Charizard and Pikachu​, who might be hiding in the park, for example, or at the mall.

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But aside from prompting physical activity, the game may offer another, more unexpected health benefit: As Buzzfeed reports, Pokemon Go has been encouraging people with mental health issues to spend time outdoors, which has, in turn, boosted their well-being.

For example, an 18-year-old Tumblr user named Ari who suffers from anxiety and depression spent the last three years terrified to leave her house, until Pokemon Go gave her a much-needed push to get out the door: "I walked outside for hours and suddenly found myself enjoying it," she told Buzzfeed. "I had the instant rush of dopamine whenever I caught a Pokemon, and I wanted to keep going."

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Ben Michaelis, PhD, an evolutionary clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing ($10;, isn't surprised by these reports. In fact, he's already seen Pokemon Go help one of his own clients. "I think it's a genuinely positive development," he says.

Michaelis believes apps like this one are most likely to help people with mild to moderate cases of anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia.

"The game could provide motivation to go outside and explore the world through a sort of enhanced reality," he explains. "It could also provide people with enough of a distraction from their fears and inner monologue to get them to do something that might be challenging for them."

And, as we already know from research, getting more exercise and spending time outdoors can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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That said, "games shouldn't be seen as a cure, but as a useful tool," Michaelis points out. It's still important to work with a mental health professional to treat your condition.

Another cautionary note: "One obvious potential drawback [of the app] is that Pokemon Go could become the only way a person can interact with the world," Michaelis says.

To enjoy the game in a healthy way, he recommends giving yourself a time limit (say 30 minutes a day), and to make sure hunting digital critters isn't the only activity you're doing outside. After you put down your phone, spend some time gardening, or walking or running, he suggests.

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