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.

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Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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