Tetris Soothes Psychological Trauma

Every year at my dad’s office Christmas party, my sister and I would beg his secretary to let us play Tetris on her computer. We could play it on a Game Boy anytime we wanted, but that was in black and white. On her computer: glorious color.

After about the age of 13, I didn’t play Tetris for many years. In high school, Sim City was my video game of choice. In college, I discovered computerized Solitaire. A few years ago, I became obsessed with digital Scrabble.

A couple of months before John’s breakdown, I rediscovered Tetris. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, he was working a lot, and even when he was home on the weekend, he was often obsessed with work. I needed to find things to do to occupy my time. A Web search for “free Tetris” bore fruit, so I played the occasional game here and there.

But when John went into the hospital and my anxiety was so high that I lost seven pounds in a week eating the exact same amount of food as usual (I know because I weigh and measure all my meals as part of my Twelve Step recovery), Solitaire didn’t help, Scrabble didn’t help, and I didn’t even have access to Sim City.

No, the only thing that helped calm my anxiety and prevented me from reliving the weekend prior to John’s hospitalization over and over again in my mind was a combination of mindless TV and Tetris.

In light of some new research released by Oxford University, I don’t think this was an accident.

*****

During John’s hospitalization, I could hardly sleep. Whenever I wasn’t on the phone with a friend or family member processing what had happened with John, I had to be doing something that kept my mind off my husband’s meltdown.

In a recent post, Gretchen Rubin, author of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, writes, “When I’ve been extremely anxious about something, I’ve found that it helps to give myself a short break from my worries, at least occasionally. By finding a ‘comfort food’ activity for my mind, I re-charge my battery, find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, find it easier to take action — and I sleep better.”

In light of my husband’s illness, I was trying to find a ‘comfort food’ activity for my mind, but it was proving difficult.

Reading didn’t help—I couldn’t stay focused on the words on the page. Prayer didn’t help, either—no matter how hard I tried, my mind wandered. TV alone was no good—the storylines weren’t engrossing enough to lose myself in them. There was no urgency to Solitaire, and too much waiting for the other player during Scrabble.

But Tetris, there was relief! The fast-paced nature of the game made me concentrate on getting the shapes into the right configurations. It left no room for wandering thoughts, no room for reliving the previous weekend. Because of this, I thought, Tetris was an effective distraction.

Oddly enough, the Oxford researchers found that Tetris doesn’t just provide a distraction from psychological distress: the image-driven nature of the game actually works to reduce flashbacks.

*****

In an article published this week in PLoS One, the researchers explain:

The majority of healthy individuals are liable to suffer a traumatic event at some point in their life time, and are thus placed at risk of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After experiencing a traumatic event, people can suffer from disturbing intrusive memories of the event, commonly referred to as flashbacks, in which the traumatic material comes back to mind as unwanted images and scenes of the trauma. These involuntary trauma memories are associated with significant emotion and distress. At their worst, such flashbacks to trauma can persist for extended periods of time, causing significant distress and impairment. Re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks are the hallmark characteristic of PTSD and a precursor to the disorder.

In an effort to find a way to alleviate these flashbacks, the researchers showed 60 study participants a film consisting of “traumatic scenes of injury and death.” The participants were then divided into three groups: one that did nothing, one that played Tetris, and one that played a computer trivia game.

The study found that those who played Tetris after watching the video had fewer flashbacks than those who did nothing (while they played, immediately afterward, and four hours later) while those who played the trivia game actually experienced more flashbacks than those who did nothing. According to the researchers, “Not all computer games are beneficial or merely distracting post-trauma—some may be harmful.”

An ABC News story quotes Emily Holmes, the study’s lead researcher at Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, as saying, “It may be that a verbal general knowledge game [a.k.a. the trivia game] may be impairing people’s ability to make sense, as it were, of the traumatic film information, which accordingly to clinical psychology models of trauma memory, would serve to worsen flashbacks.”

In other words, reading and Scrabble not only didn’t prevent me from rehashing the events leading up to John’s hospitalization, they actually interfered with my ability to process them in a way that allowed me to let go of my anxiety, grief, and stress.

Holmes goes on to say, “We think [playing Tetris] works because it’s competing with resources with the same kind of visual memory that would otherwise make a visual flashback, because flashbacks themselves are strong images.”

I am fascinated and humbled by the fact that, when I was dealing with the trauma of John’s sudden and severe psychotic break, I instinctively found a coping mechanism that has been scientifically shown to alleviate psychological distress.

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3 Responses to Tetris Soothes Psychological Trauma

  1. Angie says:

    My husband has been dealing with a lot of disturbing thoughts lately, he just went and downloaded Tetris onto his smartphone. Great recommendation, it totally makes sense!

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