Tetris Might Help People Recover from Trauma, Addiction

This post was written for and published on Rewire.org.

Have you ever gotten so into a video game that you’ve dreamt about it? It’s possible that type of immersion could have some positive psychological benefits.

Case in point: Recent research from University of Oxford found that patients who played Tetris in the emergency room following a traumatic event had less intrusive memories afterward.

When people can’t recover from trauma

It’s normal to be unsettled right after something like a car accident, but sometimes people aren’t able to leave life-threatening experiences behind them.

“While exposure to traumatic events can be unfortunately common over the course of one’s lifespan, the majority of people do not go on to develop clinical problems with PTSD,” said Craig Sawchuk, a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) describes the problem some people have recovering from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.

Sawchuk said that certain groups of people—like members of the military, emergency service personnel and Native Americans—are at a higher risk for developing PTSD relative to other populations.

“Approximately 10 percent of individuals will meet criteria for PTSD at some point in their lifetime,” Sawchuk said.

Starting recovery in the waiting room?

Because PTSD is often triggered by remembering specific images from an event, Emily Holmes, professor of psychology at the University of Karolinska and lead researcher on the University of Oxford study, wanted to try introducing a visually immersive therapy immediately after a traumatic incident, according to BBC News.

As patients arrived in an emergency room after a traffic accident, they were asked to picture the accident in their minds—and then play Tetris for 20 minutes. The results of the study were clear: Patients who played the game within six hours of the accident were less troubled by memories of the event, and these memories faded more quickly.

“Our findings suggest that if you engage in very visually demanding tasks soon after a trauma, this can help block or disrupt the memory being stored in an overly vivid way,” Holmes told BBC News.

Reducing cravings with distractions

Playing Tetris doesn’t just curb the recurrence of troubling memories, it’s also been proven to reduce carvings for caffeine, nicotine and sweets. A separate study at Plymouth University in the U.K. and the University of Queensland in Australia found that playing Tetris in short bursts throughout the day reduced cravings for drugs (alcohol, nicotine and caffeine), activities (sex, exercise and gaming) and food and drink by 13.9 percent.

For people who struggle with addiction or cravings, this is great news because it’s “the first demonstration that visual cognitive interference can be used in the field to reduce cravings for substances and activities other than eating,” the authors wrote in the study.

Translation? If you want to resist uncorking a bottle of wine, play a little Tetris when you get the urge.

Overcoming PTSD and addictions

While this research on Tetris might be promising, people with PTSD need more than a video game to recover.

Sawchuk explained that the two psychological approaches proven to be effective treatments for PTSD by research are known as exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy.

“Exposure therapy involves gradual, repeated and controllable approaches to triggers for their trauma, such as specific situations, images and recurring intrusive thoughts, until an individual’s reactivity to these triggers starts to reduce,” Sawchuk said. “Cognitive processing therapy involves identifying and modifying certain thoughts and beliefs related to the trauma, for example, ‘I will be re-victimized again.’”

The same is true for addictions. Sawchuk pointed out that Tetris is not meant to replace the use of established, evidence-based treatments for addiction. Rather, the game might help compliment a range of available treatments, like counseling.

So even though problems might seem overwhelming, help is out there—for PTSD and addictions. Take a minute to make a call before you open your Tetris app. Then play on, player.

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