How to Stop Frightening Experiences From Driving Anxiety and Phobia – New Research May Have Found a Simple Way

How to Stop Frightening Experiences From Driving Anxiety and Phobia - New Research May Have Found a Simple Way

Traumatic events, such as car accidents, can leave a lasting scar. These experiences can create persuasive, powerful memories that can drive lasting fear and avoidance of similar situations. Now, researchers have found a surprising, and surprisingly simple, way to stop a frightening experience from becoming a more enduring, more troublesome force.

New research, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, found that playing the popular computer games Tetris, or Candy Crush, after a traumatic experience can interrupt the formation of recurrent, intrusive memories.

Memories of traumatic events are powerful. Rather than being the raw data of an event, they can hold the intense emotion, and the frightening sights and sounds of the original experience. Recalling the memory can feel more like a ‘reliving’, than a remembering. Understandably, replaying any type of frightening event in this way can significantly interfere with day to day life. Eventually, it can lead to phobias, acute stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and prolonged grief.

Let’s talk about the research.

Based on insights from neuroscience and their findings from previous research, the researchers wanted to explore whether a simple activity could prevent memories of a traumatic experience from causing ongoing distress. 

The study involved 71 participants who had each been involved in a traumatic road accident, and were waiting in the emergency department at a hospital. Participants were divided into a ‘gaming group’, who were given the computer game intervention, and a control group who weren’t. Within six hours of the accident, participants in the gaming group were asked to remember the road accident and play Tetris for about 20 minutes.

In the week following their road accident, the people in the gaming group experienced 62% less intrusive memories, compared to the control group. They also reported less distress.

‘A brief psychological intervention including Tetris offers a cognitive ‘therapeutic vaccine’ that could be administered soon after a traumatic event to prevent the recurrence of intrusive memories of trauma in the subsequent week’. – Lalitha Iyadurai, University of Oxford.

The researchers suggest that drawing, or other video games that combine visual and spatial tasks, such as Candy Crush, could also have similar benefits. They also propose that these activities may be more beneficial than activities that focus predominantly on verbal tasks, such as reading or crosswords.

Traumatic memories without the trauma. How does that work?

Previous research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that the enduring fear that comes from a frightening incident is consolidated in memory at two critical periods. The first is at the time of the trauma, and the second is three to six hours later. Over this time, a series of chemical and electrical processes in the brain work on transferring short-term memories into long-term ones. If something happens to interrupt this process, the memory will be more fragile, and the fear attached to that memory will be less.

What this means is that between the point of trauma, and up to six hours later, there is an opportunity to stop a fearful event becoming fully consolidated in memory with the emotions, sights and sounds of the original trauma. This doesn’t mean people will lose the memory of the incident. What it means is that if the process of memory formation is interrupted at this critical period, the memory will be there, but the emotion connected to the initial event won’t be as intrusive. This makes it less likely that the memory will become a traumatic ‘reliving’ of the event every time it is recalled.

So practically speaking, what does it mean?

The best part of these interventions is that there are no side-effects. Although more research is needed to determine their effectiveness on a broader scale, there is no harm in using them following any frightening incident to try to lessen the longer-term impact of the trauma.

Long-term fears and phobias often have their roots in a single incident that generalises to similar experiences. Examples include a scary encounter with a dog that generalises to a fear of all dogs, a fright from a popping balloon that transfers to a fear of balloons, choking on food that transfers to a fear of swallowing, being skittled by a wave that transfers to a fear of the ocean – and so many more. Fears and phobias tend to drive avoidance and can assume much more control of day to day life than they deserve. Steering behaviour to avoid any chance of another traumatic experience might seem sensible, but it can also steal a lot of life. Avoidance can have a lengthy reach, affecting not only the person with the fear, but also the people who are close to them who miss out on their presence, or who have to also rearrange plans to accommodate the fear.

It’s a fact of being human that occasionally, things might happen that make us feel powerless, helpless and frightened. If this happens to you, or someone close to you, playing a visual-spatial game for 20 minutes such as Tetris or Candy Crush, within the first six hours of the incident could potentially stop the incident becoming more intrusive and traumatic than it deserves.  

And finally …

We humans are driven by emotion, and when that emotion is a traumatic one, the memory of it can be enduring and intense, and it can drive behaviour for the long term. When the brain stores traumatic memories, the emotions attached to the initial experience can be stored in such a way that they are accessed every time the memory is recalled. Rather than being a memory, it is experienced as a ‘reliving’. This gives life to the initial event, creating recurring trauma, fear and pain with every recall. Eventually, it can lead to anxiety, depression, or an intense and prolonged emotional response.

More research is needed to test the long-term benefits of playing video games or drawing as part of protecting a person from intrusive memories after a traumatic event. In the meantime, if there is any potential at all for such a simple, safe and available way to limit further trauma, there would seem no reason not to have it as part of a response to any frightening experience.

[irp posts=”2077″ name=”Phobias and Fears in Children – Powerful Strategies To Try”]

 

7 Comments

Ck

Interesting article, just now reflecting on this whole concept, disrupting emotional memory something to think long and hard about

Reply
The Episode Team

I’ve been traumatized but mentally and emotionally… and it hurts me every time I think of it and it numbs me every time someone triggers it, It is anxiety but I’m afraid its going t over power me

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

If your symptoms are getting in the way like this, I would really encourage you to get some outside support from a professional who is used to dealing with this. There are very effective ways to manage anxiety, and there are people who can help with this. If you can, talk to a doctor, psychologist or counsellor so they can help you to strengthen against your symptoms and stop you from feeling so overwhelmed by them.

Reply
Gail

I have an opinion based on practice that spacial excercises do help as therapy to relieve the mind of difficult and traumatic memories . It is also helpful in regaining a regulated emotional balance in the case of a weak mind such as occurs in severely disabled combined with autism . My concern is that the dependence on electronics is going to cause other weaknesses over the long term , I would like to suggest that cooking , drawing , clay structure ,knitting and colouring are healthier forms of spacial brain stimulants.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thank you for sharing your experience of this. The researchers suggest that drawing may have similar results, and it’s very possible that the other suggestions you have made might do the same. This is only initial research, and more is needed. The positive in using a computer game is that it tends to be something very accessible in the sixh-hour window following a frightening experience. It’s fascinating research and I hope the researchers extend their word to explore the effects of other activities, such as the ones you have mentioned.

Reply
Jean

What a useful piece of research! Thanks for publishing! It should be sent to all hospital ERs?

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Jean. I agree – it’s a wonderfully practical study. I hope it is read widely by practitioners, and I hope the researchers extend their important work.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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