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Sunday, December 10, 2023

I Battle My Panic Disorder by Mowing Virtual Lawns

I can feel my heartbeat in my teeth. It’s rapid, uneven. I’m too hot and too cold all at once, and I feel each temperature shift acutely. I think I might throw up. There’s a stitch in my side. I want to crawl under the bed and hide for the rest of the night. I’m in the middle of a panic attack, and right now, there’s only one thing I know will help: mowing a virtual lawn.

I grab my phone and open the It’s Literally Just Mowing game, settle down onto my virtual purple lawn mower, tip my virtual newsboy cap to myself, and use my shiny star-shaped blade to rid my virtual neighborhood of all its excessive grass. Within minutes, I’ve calmed down enough to get some rest.

For a simple, freemium mobile game, it has some fun features. You start on a standard-issue riding lawn mower in some pretty drab clothes. After you mow all the lawns on a street (which could be at a home, museum, park, or grass-covered piece of artwork), you get a gift box that has mower parts or clothing, allowing you to customize every part of your mower and your outfit. The more streets you mow, the more gifts you earn. You also have a photo album of different birds, butterflies, and animals you discover throughout the game. Both of these features are entertaining, but they aren’t overpowering—the focus is truly on the mowing. The ridiculously satisfying routine of just mowing.

I’ve had a panic disorder since my teens. I get debilitating panic attacks that leave me cowering under tables or in a puddle of tears in the corner. Typically I treat it with medication, taking it as needed to stymie the attacks. But since I started using Just Mowing, I find I’m taking the medication less and less. I can confidently say that mowing these virtual lawns is just as good at calming me down as using my prescribed panic medication. (That’s just for me, though; you should talk to your doctor.)

Charmain Jackman, psychologist and founder of InnoPsych, a company focusing on mental health for marginalized communities, says it’s because I’m practicing mindfulness without knowing it.

“What this app provides is being present and focused,” she said. “If you’re in the moment, you can’t be focused too much on the past or the future, which is where anxiety lives. We’re often anxious about things that happened, things that were said, or what’s going to happen. With a very present focus, it’s really hard to worry about those things. That’s what mindfulness is about; the whole idea of doing an activity where you’re fully dropped in. It requires sustained attention and focus.”


I didn’t begin playing Just Mowing to combat stress or practice mindfulness—I was just bored and wanted to waste some time. But then I once found myself away from home and realized mid-panic that I didn’t have my medication. Just Mowing was a quick fix to distract myself, but I was immediately captured and calmed by the grass blowing in the wind, the buzzing noise from the lawn mower, and the little chirps of birds flying through the virtual sky. That panic attack was quickly cut down with the rest of my virtual lawn, and it’s been a staple in my anxiety tool kit ever since.

Apparently I’m not the only one who uses Just Mowing to this effect. Australian game development company ProtoStar, cofounded by Dean Loades and Matt Knights after they left Halfbrick Studios (home of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride), released Just Mowing in February 2020, and they have received ample feedback about the anti-anxiety power of the game.

Mowing generates by far the most reports of players having a really positive experience with regards to mental health,” Loades said. “We have had some really touching feedback. 2020 was a stressful year, so there were a lot of people playing to relax, but also frontline workers playing to help with the stress of the pandemic and even people playing to help with the grief of loved ones dying. It is hugely rewarding for us as the developers to get this kind of feedback, and it wasn't really a thing with our previous games.”

The game was designed to create a zen-like state, Loades says, noting that he’s especially proud of the digital grass and how it moves in the virtual wind. They wanted to tap into that sense of satisfaction you get from taking something messy (in this case, too-long grass) and morphing it into something neat and tidy. Plus, you can’t lose. You can’t make any wrong turns, or mess up the lawn, or break your lawn mower. It’s not challenging. It’s just a calm distraction from life.

For me particularly, the game is extra helpful because it’s a departure from the normal minutiae of my day. I live in the city and don’t have to worry about mowing a lawn—in fact, a lack of yard maintenance is one of the main reasons I chose to live in a three-flat. It may sound odd that doing something virtually that I intentionally avoid in real life eases my anxiety, but there’s a good explanation behind it.

“Imagery can be a powerful tool for changing emotions,” says University of Massachusetts Memorial psychologist Pooja Saraff. “We often imagine a relaxing place in our mind to get away from daily troubles, and for a city-dweller, imagining a green lawn can have just that effect. By just creating a peaceful scenery in your mind, especially a green one, you may feel closer to nature, which helps calm nerves. Further, the app is especially valuable if it mimics an experience that is not available to you in real life or at all times—think city, winter, or at work. Engaging in an activity that is outside of your normal day may be soothing because it is novel, creates interest, engages you more, and helps shift attention from worries.”

I do wonder, though—would mowing an actual lawn have the same effect? I haven’t mowed one in years, and I honestly can’t remember if I enjoyed it or not. Short of asking my dad to let me mow his lawn, I posed the question to Jackman and Saraff. They both believe that it would have the same calming effect. I’d be outdoors and exercising, things which already lift moods. I’d gain a sense of accomplishment as well, just like in “those movies where the dad is out there mowing on Sunday, getting the lines just right,” Jackman said. It would literally be just mowing, in full immersion. That being said, I’m just the right amount of lazy to not jump onto the riding lawn mower at my parents’ house, so instead I’ll keep using the game.

There are potential pitfalls to using the app for anxiety, though. Both Jackman and Saraff note that it could become an unhealthy coping mechanism for me if I become unable to manage my anxiety without it. A dependency on just one aspect of anxiety relief, they say, is a problem in itself. Plus, I could just lose interest in the app. Though I can’t currently imagine a world where I don’t spend some time cutting my virtual neighbors’ virtual lawns, growing tired of it is a very real possibility.

At least I know that if Just Mowing ever loses its novelty and stops helping me, I’d probably be quite happy starting a side hustle mowing actual lawns in the suburbs. Ah, the things we do for calm.

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