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Are board games good for your mental health?

January 25, 2022 • read

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Are board games good for your mental health?

There are many ways you can improve your mental health — from getting fresh air and exercise to eating healthy, taking up relaxation practices, or speaking with a therapist. There’s also another way to improve not only your mental health but your memory as well, and it just might be something you really enjoyed doing as a kid — playing board games.

Here we’ll discuss why board games are good for your mental health, how they can reduce stress, which types of board games you should be playing, and much more.

What do board games do for your brain?

You might have heard of the term cognitive decline before and automatically assumed it’s related to age, but that’s not the case. Your brain needs to be stimulated, just like muscles in your body. Exercising your mind each day by playing a board game can help keep your brain stimulated and slow cognitive decline, which includes diseases like Alzheimer’s. And, on top of that, playing board games have even been shown to help curb smoking addiction.

When you play a board game, you’re also enabling a part of your brain — the frontal lobe — that’s responsible for logical thinking. Trying to find the quickest route around the Monopoly board, building blocks during Jenga, or outsmarting your chess competitor all requires logical thinking.

Along with logical thinking, board games have been shown to help prevent cognitive impairment in seniors as well as illness-prone behaviours in children and adults. Board games also promote learning how to follow rules and staying seated for a longer period of time, which can help improve childrens’ concentration levels.

What’s more, if you’re looking to encourage someone to quit smoking, you might want to start playing board games with them. One study showed that playing the game Pick-Klop helped modify attitudes and cognitions of smokers. The board game was created to inform smokers about quitting without making them feel guilty, boost their confidence to stop smoking, modify their attitude towards smoking and tobacco dependence treatments, and help when smoking was reduced or fully cut out.

Results showed that the board game led to improvements in factors known to predict quitting in smokers and even increased quitting rates. All of this is to say that board games can indeed have a powerful effect on your brain.

How can board games be therapeutic?

There are many therapeutic benefits to board games. Specifically for children when playing a game they interact with others, whether it’s a family member or friend. Doing this can help improve their social skills, increase happiness, boost their self-esteem, hand-eye coordination, and even increase their attention span. Not only that, board games can help take their minds off of any negative thoughts that may have been thinking of throughout the day.

One of the other major benefits is that if a child is losing during a board game, they learn how to cope with their feelings. Teaching your child that getting angry or frustrated because they’ve lost a game can be a great lesson. Turning that loss into a “you tried your best” or “sometimes we don’t always win in life but that’s okay” speech shows them what they’re experiencing is normal. This can be extremely beneficial for their self-esteem and mental health,

And, the therapeutic benefits of board games aren’t just for children nor are they specifically from physical board games either. One researcher discovered that playing the chess game offered on their Android cell phone helped treat panic attacks. The researcher, who was affected by panic attacks as a post-traumatic stress disorder, played the digital game and found that it prevented the manifestation of panic attacks and helped cure their condition.

Board games have even made a comeback in the last couple of years partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With multiple lockdowns and so much uncertainty when the pandemic started, it became even more therapeutic to play games alongside whoever was safe to socialize with. And, players who were pulling old games out of the closet were also enjoying a little piece of nostalgia. Board games — old and new — became a source of not only entertainment but comfort and social bonding.

Not only that, but digital games have also caught on in the pandemic, like Wordle. The free online word puzzle game has gone viral with the recent spread of the Omicron variant and more lockdowns.

What social skills do board games teach?

Social skills are something you learn as a child that allows you to interact and communicate with other people. Children learn how to solve social situations by predicting and understanding other people’s behaviours. In the beginning stages of life, your social skills come from watching your parents and other family members interact with others. Then, as you get older, you start to learn behaviours from friends, teachers, and more.

With social behaviours being learned at such a young age, introducing board games into your household can help shape the social skills of young children. Behaviours such as reading facial expressions, patience, making eye contact, effective communication, following rules, and even being a well-mannered winner or loser are all useful lessons in social interactions.

On top of that, when a board game is unboxed and played, a screen is turned off. And the less screen time, the better, since too much is related to unhealthy diet, becoming severely overweight, depressive symptoms, and reduced quality of life.

What are the benefits of playing board games with family?

With the distractions of everyday life — from work and chores to making sure your kids have done their homework and the ever tempting social media — carving out the time for a family board game night is truly priceless. Not only because it’s a good distraction from everything else going on, but because each time you play a board game with children, it helps you bond and become closer as a family unit.

Taking the time to sit with family around the table and play an old favourite or even a brand new game you can’t wait to show everyone isn’t just a good time, it’s good for the whole family.

Does playing board games reduce stress?

There are many recommendations for how to help reduce your stress levels including behaviours that improve your physical health like nutrition and exercise, and even mindfulness and meditation.

One you might not have heard of, however, is playing board games. Playing a game of strategy can help distract your brain from lingering stress — and can make you feel pretty good if you win too — and playing a fun, lighthearted game can bring you joy and laughter. Laughter can decrease stress-making hormones and alter dopamine and serotonin levels.

The game Shogi specifically, also known as Japanese chess, was shown to decrease depression and anxiety levels significantly during a six-week stress management intervention. Reducing your stress levels is crucial since the impact of stress hormones can have devastating long-term effects on your mental and physical health.

Are board games better than video games?

While there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence stating board games are better for you than video games, there’s a lot of evidence showing the negative side effects of video games.

While video games have been used as a form of physiotherapy or occupational therapy to help develop social and spatial ability skills in children and adolescents with developmental issues, there’s a downside to them. In children and adolescents, there’s the risk of video game addiction, increased aggressiveness, and psychosocial effects if they play too often. “Too often” is key here, however, since studies show that playing video games in moderation doesn’t tend to have serious effects.

If you do feel your child spends way too much time in their bedroom playing video games or experiences maximum screen time each day, change up their routine with a family board game night once in a while. Playing board games activates different senses and your child might enjoy it so much that they’ll ask to make it a regular activity in your home.

What kinds of board games are best for your mental health?

Any board game that allows you to focus and brings you joy so that you’re not stressed, anxious, or depressed can be good for your mental health.

When it comes to children, look for board games that can help with patience, recognizing social cues and body language, following instructions, fine motor skills, and more such as Jenga or Perfection. Of course, you can also check each board game to see what the recommended age is to play. For example, tossing Candyland on the table to play with your 10-year-old wouldn’t be effective since it’s a simple game recommended for those ages three to five.

For seniors to help prevent dementia or for those with early-stage Alzheimer’s, you’ll want to choose brain games like puzzles, dominoes, cards, and word puzzles. Since dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning, these games can be beneficial in providing memory exercises to improve brain functions.

If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned way to help reduce cognitive decline, keep your mind active, bond with your loved ones, and improve your mental health, look no further than board games. You might even have some stashed away that you forgot about and can enjoy all over again.

Or, maybe you want to pick up some new games to play with your children or a senior family member. Whatever the reason may be, board games provide so much more than just an hour or two of entertainment, so play one whenever you have free time and soak up all of the benefits they have to offer.

If you find everything you’ve tried — including board games — is beyond helping your mental health, it may be time to seek help from a therapist. As someone outside of your circle, connecting with one might just be the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself. With Maple, you can speak to a therapist in as little as 12 hours — and you don’t have to leave home. All of our therapists are Canadian-licensed and connect with you via audio or video chat.

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