May 19, 2022


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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.

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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.