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.

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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.

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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.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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