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.
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