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Computer game Tetris can help with post-traumatic stress disorder
Researchers have found that playing the Tetris computer game can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to relieve involuntary visual memories of the traumatic experience. This also reduces the number of so-called flashbacks.
Post-traumatic stress disorders after traumatic events
If people have experienced terrible things, so-called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in addition to anxiety disorders and depression, even if the dramatic experiences were weeks or months ago, sometimes even years ago. Flashbacks occur again and again for those affected. To mitigate this, playing the Tetris computer game can help. Researchers from Germany and Sweden have now found that out.
There are not enough therapy places
Experts say that involuntary visual memories of traumatic experiences are one of the most serious symptoms of PTSD.
"PTSD can be treated well with the available therapies," explains Prof. Dr. Henrik Kessler from the Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy in the LWL University Hospital of the Ruhr University Bochum in a message.
"However, there are many more patients than therapy places," said the senior doctor and trauma therapist.
That is why researchers are looking for methods outside of conventional treatments that can alleviate symptoms.
Tetris can suppress flashbacks
About ten years ago, Prof. Emily Holmes from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and colleagues found out that the computer game Tetris can suppress flashbacks triggered by horror films in healthy people if it is played shortly after watching the film.
A research team around Prof. Kessler and his Bochum colleague Dr. Aram Kehyayan and Prof. Emily Holmes have now tested whether this effect can also help patients with PTSD, for whom the cause of the stressful memories is often years ago.
Their results, published in the journal "Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology", fuel hopes for a method that can alleviate the symptom of flashbacks without a therapist.
Special intervention completed
According to the information in the study, 20 patients with complex PTSD who were inpatient for regular therapy for six to eight weeks in the clinic for psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy took part.
In addition to the usual individual and group therapies, the study participants completed a special intervention.
They wrote one of their stressful memories on a piece of paper, then tore up the piece of paper - without talking about the content - and then played Tetris on a tablet for 25 minutes.
The subjects always indicated several different flashbacks, for example experiences of violence in different situations, the occurrence of which they noted in a diary over the weeks.
For each intervention, which took place from week to week, the patients always focused only on the content of a specific flashback.
Flashback frequency decreased
As the researchers found, only the frequency of flashback, the content of which was focused in the week, decreased specifically in the days and weeks after the intervention.
For the not yet focused flashback content, the number of flashbacks remained relatively constant. Over the weeks, different flashback contents were focused in succession, the frequency of which subsequently decreased in time.
The total number of flashbacks decreased by an average of 64 percent for the particular situation.
Flashbacks, the content of which was never focused, only decreased by eleven percent. The intervention was effective in 16 of the 20 patients tested.
Suspected underlying mechanisms
The scientists believe that the method's success is based on the following mechanism:
If patients get a detailed picture of the stressful memory, this probably activates areas for spatial-image processing in the brain; comparable areas could also be important for playing Tetris.
Both tasks therefore require comparable and limited resources, there is interference.
Whenever a patient deliberately recalls the content of a flashback, the associated memory trail becomes temporarily unstable.
If interference occurs during this time, the memory trace could be weakened again, the researchers suspect.
Trauma therapy cannot be replaced
"In our study, the intervention was accompanied by a team member, but this did not take an active role and did not read the written traumatic memories," explains Kessler.
"Our hope is that we can derive a treatment that people could carry out on their own if no therapy place is available," said the expert.
"However, the intervention cannot replace a complex trauma therapy, but only alleviate a central symptom, the flashbacks."
The researchers also point out that further scientific studies with control conditions and on a significantly larger number of patients are necessary to confirm the effectiveness of the method.
The team around Kessler and Kehyayan is currently carrying out these studies. They also get to the bottom of the exact mechanisms of the effect in healthy people in basic studies. (ad)