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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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