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Traumatized? Playing Tetris may reduce flashbacks
November 10th, 2010
05:49 PM ET

Traumatized? Playing Tetris may reduce flashbacks

The rapid-fire visual puzzles that make Tetris so engrossing may also make the video game a promising treatment for post-traumatic stress, a new study suggests.

Recurring, intrusive thoughts of a traumatic event (or events) are one of the hallmark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a type of anxiety disorder. According to the study, which appears in the journal PLoS ONE, playing Tetris soon after a traumatic experience appears to protect against these flashbacks, by distracting the brain from the event and short-circuiting how upsetting memories and images are stored.

Not just any video game will do. Notably, the study found that games that rely on trivia or language skills don't appear to have the same therapeutic effect as stacking Tetris blocks, probably because they activate different areas of the brain.

Health.com: Can ecstasy help ease post-traumatic stress?

"Verbal tasks may not be as effective because they will not affect the same neural networks," says Dr. Alexander Obolsky, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, who specializes in the treatment of PTSD. "It's a different part of the brain that processes that information." (Obolsky was not involved in the new research.)

To explore the effect of Tetris on post-traumatic stress, researchers in the UK used a well-known lab model of trauma: They showed a series of upsetting film clips (fatal car accidents, graphic surgery) to 60 people, then asked the participants to record how often they experienced flashbacks from the film.

The volunteers, who had no history of mental health problems, were divided into three groups. Shortly after watching the film, one group played Tetris, another played a word-based quiz computer game, and the third simply sat quietly.

Health.com: Playing Tetris may build up your brain

In the first 10 minutes, the participants who played Tetris had just four flashbacks, on average. By comparison, the quiz-game players had about six flashbacks, and the participants who did nothing had 12 flashbacks.

More importantly, the protective effect of Tetris seemed to be lasting. Over the following week, members of the Tetris group continued to experience fewer flashbacks compared with the quiz-game and control groups. (The researchers asked the participants to record their flashbacks in a diary.) The group who played the quiz game actually experienced more flashbacks over the week than the group who did nothing.

"A visuospatial task such as Tetris may offer a 'cognitive vaccine' against the development of PTSD flashbacks after exposure to traumatic events," the researchers concluded. The study was led by Emily Holmes, a senior research fellow in psychiatry at Oxford University.

Health.com: Study: Too many video games may sap attention span

While the results of the experiment suggest a way to head off PTSD, much more research is needed before experts can start recommending Tetris or similar visual tasks for trauma victims in the real world.

"If this indeed keeps working in various situations in further studies, then perhaps at one point we can try it with people who have actual PTSD," Obolsky says. But, he adds, "there are years before this may or may not have something to do with what I do in my office with my patients."

Effective therapies that can be administered within hours of a traumatic event are desperately needed, Holmes and her colleagues write. In fact, they note, some existing forms of early intervention counseling can even make PTSD symptoms worse.

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Filed under: Brain • PTSD

soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. Chance Holland

    Throw some ecstasy in with your Tetris sesh and I'd say you have an all out cure.

    November 10, 2010 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. KL

    Facinating! Two years ago, I underwent an extremely traumatic time. As part of my healing process, I was really drawn to games like Tetris and card games that required quick strategy.

    November 10, 2010 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lil stinker

      what happened to you?

      November 11, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse |
  3. tmclaurin

    I think music –rythms,mbiras etc..-much more calming--and an attractive skill that is at your finger tips with every passing tune-–

    November 10, 2010 at 19:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jay

      good call.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:12 | Report abuse |
  4. william dawson

    I am on my 4th tour of duty in Afghanistan, I play a game called " bubbles" I never thought of it before but, I havent had nightmares or trouble sleeping. I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2006.

    November 10, 2010 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • M Griffin

      Thank you for your service!! God Bless you and your fellow service men and women!

      November 11, 2010 at 13:37 | Report abuse |
  5. Tea Bag Pat Riot

    Playing games can indeed help, but only single-person games. I find only playing with myself to help my PTSD.

    November 10, 2010 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Donna

      Before the internet came about, I was hooked on Tetris. I often played head-to-head with someone on a different computer.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:41 | Report abuse |
    • John

      That is so wrong!!!!

      November 11, 2010 at 06:53 | Report abuse |
  6. jloome

    All part and parcel of repetitive stimuli producing seratonin-led chemicals in the brain. Also happens when the posterior parietal cortex is disrupted during religious ceremonies and orgasm.

    Explains a lot of repetitive ceremony within group behaviour and designed to bring participants comfort, thereby making them stay in the group.

    November 10, 2010 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • knowneuro

      what are you talking about? way to make stuff up with science words you found on the interwebz. also: it's "seretonin".

      November 11, 2010 at 10:07 | Report abuse |
    • notquite

      serotonin.

      not that it matters.

      November 11, 2010 at 11:56 | Report abuse |
  7. Jon

    Just as long as they're not playing the version of Tetris with the curved bottom. That's torture.

    November 10, 2010 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. trixen

    Yes, doctor, the exploding Vietnamese babies are gone, but now I keep having these recurring nightmares where all these funny looking blocks are falling from the ceiling and I can't get them into place in time!

    November 10, 2010 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Trappedinmyhead

    I have a severe personality disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder-not to be confused with pain old Social Phobia. Both are paralyzing and all consuming. I really don't think about anything else when I'm playing and I find it exciting to "crush" the lines. I think for me it increases the seratonin; it picks me up. I love seeing how far I can get before it's too fast; it's how I relax and disrupt my thought patterns during the day.

    Getting a phone that would run it was one of mt best purchases ever!

    November 10, 2010 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Paulie

    This applies to video games in general. World of Warcraft lowers my blood pressure if combined with cannabis.

    November 10, 2010 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      Amen, Paulie, Amen...

      November 11, 2010 at 11:59 | Report abuse |
  11. candicemarie

    I had extreme back pain during the end of one of my pregnancies. (I have old injuries.) Each evening, I sat in the recliner and played my kids' handheld tetris. It distracted from my discomfort, something I could not get from just relaxing, reading or watching television. Tetris doesn't help the carpel tunnel though...

    November 10, 2010 at 21:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. r

    Video games GIVE me PTSD so I cannot play them. It all started with Mario Bros. I always got killed within 30 seconds except one time I lasted one minute. I still remember that.

    November 10, 2010 at 21:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • anon

      I lasted a minute on my first time too. It happens.

      November 11, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse |
  13. whatnext

    Of course video games cause cancer.

    November 10, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. DinPa

    Tetris?.....For reals? If you believe this BS, I can sell you some beach front property in Kansas.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • wptoler

      Everything has a price..... if someone is willing to buy it....

      November 11, 2010 at 04:53 | Report abuse |
  15. Sean Kazmierczak

    I have PTSD due to near death experience in Iraq. I can say positively that this article is full of shat...

    Day in and day out I am distracted, with an obsession to protect myself that cannot be adequately explained with words. With that being said, as a result, I cannot focus to complete tasks whatever they may be...including video games. It is almost an extremely severe case of Attention Deficit Disorder...because I cant focus on ANYTHING.

    I call shenanigans.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jay

      Yeah, a mild distraction at best after "watching" car accidents on film. Playing Tetris after what you've been through is like trying to hold the tide back with a pushbroom. There's a way through it, but it ain't Tetris.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:15 | Report abuse |
    • Sammy Joe

      hey buddy if you can't concentrate on anything how did you type your comment? eh?

      November 11, 2010 at 11:55 | Report abuse |
  16. Misia

    I'll attest to the miraculous properties of Tetris – I am classic white-knuckle flyer - if I could fly under general anesthesia, I would I've tried Alcohol, even dangerous combos of pills and alcohol to no avail – effects are brief. The body, when mind is (irrationally) convinced a 35.000 foot plummet and fiery group death is imminent, resists sedation mightily. Only Tetris has worked. Something about the escalating suspense as speed is ratcheted up. Powerful medicine, no hangover. And a clear mind should worst imaginings materialize. Hail Tetris!

    November 10, 2010 at 22:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nick

      "Escalating suspense"? Really? How are you so devoid of an ability to see things from the point of view of someone who has ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED something traumatic?? Things aren't so black and white in life...Hopefully someday you'll realize that...

      November 11, 2010 at 05:57 | Report abuse |
    • Nightquestor

      Nick; I am glad to see that the degree in Physc you printed serves you so well.
      PTSD and Phobia's are both of the mind, and as real to the person experiencing them as the real thing.
      A person who has a severve phobia, does not need to experience the real thing, as it is the simple
      thought of it that causes the distress.

      You statement could easily equate to those who tell PTSD suffers to get over It you lived through it, so stop whining.

      November 11, 2010 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
  17. Donio

    I have PTSD from Vietnam and I also have trouble finishing anything I try to do. So how is going to help if I don't want to play it more than a few minutes. It also said to do it very soon after the experience. Well mine was 40 years ago.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Misia

    I don't think the writeup suggests that playing the game ought to comprise the entirety of therapy, only that it may help as part of overall treatment plan. One doesn't have to be a neuroscientist or psychiatrist to understand why – It's fairly commonsensical that when a feedback loop (flashback0 is interrupted - by whatever means - the lull (besides being a relief in itself) may act to somehow dilute strength of impulse in future.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      I think it does suggest it. Added by the fact the study used an extremely mild irritant such as watching videos, further dilutes the study. People who suffer from PTSD are extremely unique, the uniqueness including specifically what sets off bad days and very bad episodes. A certain smell...a picture of something, etc. etc..

      I think its a poor study and quite frankly offensive to people who suffer from severe PTSD that they can pick up Tetris and feel better.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:29 | Report abuse |
    • Donna

      Supposedly EMDR works extremely well for PTSD.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:44 | Report abuse |
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      I've had it done to me while being treated at Balboa Naval Hospital. I didnt notice anything spectacular about it.

      It is my firm belief there is no cure for PTSD, and there never will be. Only the ability to adjust and cope with it.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:48 | Report abuse |
  19. grock

    I prefer getting a bj from a different high school girl every day to reduce my stress.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      Too bad if you had severe PTSD, like many Veteran's that this article alludes to, you wouldn't care less about getting a bj.

      Don't quit your day job...cause you aren't that funny.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:31 | Report abuse |
  20. Yup

    How can you equate seeing some photos or a video of a "graphic" scene with actually having your life or someone else's threatened? The ethics alone will prohibit such a study. So saying this will help those with PTSD is assuming a lot and giving false hope to those trapped in a living hell who have PTSD. The study has far too many holes in it (a diary of self reporting?) (no actual life threats to self or others) (etc..) to even be publishable...much less reported on a global news network.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Misia

    Offensive? Okey dokey. The piece is pop-psych, not a peer-reviewed article in JAMA. Read the last three paragraphs, a disclaimer and caution against too-hasty and rosy conclusions.

    November 10, 2010 at 22:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      Says the person whos fear of planes is miraculously cured by picking up Tetris....im quite capable of reading, thanks though.

      Perhaps your attitude would be different if your life was actually affected by PTSD, and to realize how absolutely absurd this notion is.

      November 10, 2010 at 22:51 | Report abuse |
  22. Hannah

    I actually suffer from PTSD and I think that the rapid eye movement that takes place while playing a game of Tetris is the reason why it alleviates some of the anxiety symptoms. EMDR is used to treat patients with PTSD and the rapid eye movements that are associated with this treatment are what brings both sides of the brain together. Tetris may serve as a "distraction" which in my opinion is what this article is trying to suggest, but I don't think the distraction is what truly helps PTSD sufferers.

    November 10, 2010 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • EMDR patient

      That's what I was thinking- the kind of rapid-fire visuals you get in games like Tetris might mimic the effects of EMDR.

      November 11, 2010 at 08:46 | Report abuse |
  23. Misia

    Goodness. Look. You have somehow interpreted discussion of the possibility of a new treatment type that may help suffererers of PTSD as cavalier disregard for the pain they endure. Nothing could be further from the truth. All honor and respect to the afflicted, and special honor to those whose affliction if service related. I could not be more grateful. You have Zero idea of whether an anonymous respondent has experienced trauma severe enough to induce the condition. Zero. 'Tude wise your self righteousness could use a little adjusting.

    November 10, 2010 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      "If this indeed keeps working in various situations in further studies, then perhaps at one point we can try it with people who have actual PTSD," Obolsky says.

      Perhaps you should read the paragraph yourself, because nobody in the study has PTSD. Im simply stating how absurd it is, from the point of view of someone that suffers from severe PTSD.

      My opinion is different from yours, get over it.

      November 10, 2010 at 23:13 | Report abuse |
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      And as far as I can tell, this is still a free country...therefore my attitude can remain exactly the way it is. Especially regarding the fact we are discussing opinions and not facts. Maybe you should not try to push your opinion and train of thought onto others.

      November 10, 2010 at 23:20 | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      Sean, you want to play the "it's a free country" card when your opinion is challenged, and yet you go around telling other people how they should feel about their own phobias. Pot/kettle: hello.

      November 11, 2010 at 11:19 | Report abuse |
  24. Misia

    Good God. I suppose you can't see the contradiction in reasoning in your last sentence. Of course it's a free country, and no one has said you should stifle yourself. By all means, carry on. I hope you can attain a measure of peace - and I hope you won't interpret this as "pushing" my opinion - perhaps allowing yourself to imagine that is possible may be an important step. Best of luck.

    November 10, 2010 at 23:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      Good god. I suppose you can't see your hypocrisy. First, you tell me I can't be offended. Now, you tell me what my opinions are supposed to be.

      You are quite the confused person.

      November 11, 2010 at 02:12 | Report abuse |
    • Sean Kazmierczak

      I am quite peaceful. Retired, with a family. Now have a nice life and continue your hypocritical journey!

      November 11, 2010 at 02:13 | Report abuse |
  25. nick

    Yea right, because watching clips of traumatic events is even CLOSE to the level of trauma that you would experience from, oh say, watching your friends get mutilated on the battlefield. How can they even try to say that this is even a probable therepy or cure of Post Traumatic Stress Distorder??? This is just bad science.

    November 11, 2010 at 05:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Nikki

    it can't hurt to try it. It could be a low cost bandaid for people who can't afford EMDR. Rapid eye movement therapy. EMDR has proven to be very sucessful with trauma in a short period of time compared to other therapys

    November 11, 2010 at 05:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. bbdavis

    I use to play tetris for hours at a time and when I closed my eyes all I would see were the shapes moving around just like they were on the screen. I consider this a traumatic experience in itself.

    and "one time I died, I played Tetris and card games and it helped me get better."..... you helped yourself get better ya tard.

    November 11, 2010 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Gabor47

    I have no idea whether this is true or not, but if non-trivia intellectual games help some people, look up in Wikipedia "Intellectual Decathlon". It is 10 intellectuals "tasks" (games) linked together with standardized scores. At the very end of the article there is a link from where it can be downloaded for free. Not a shareware, it is really free.

    November 11, 2010 at 06:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. nowathriver

    I don't think that it's the "distracting game" that helps. It's the movement of the eyes back and forth that engages both sides of the brain and helps to properly "file" the memory in the brain. It's basically a form of EMDR. I have PTSD from childhood sexual abuse and have had mixed results from EMDR, but I have fellow survivors that it has worked wonders for.

    November 11, 2010 at 08:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. b-yet

    I have ADHD (non medicated) and played tetris for hours when i had to write and organize term papers for college. I found that after an hour or 2 of serious tetris playing, that my ability to organize information and words became stronger. I was 37 when i went to college, was told at community college when I started that I wouldn't make it. I learned tetris from my daughter, left CC with a 3.7 GPA and graduated from a stringent 4 yr writing college with a gpa of 3.57. Does tetris work, ABSOLUTELY!

    November 11, 2010 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Rose

    My then 8 year old daughter played her hand-held video gaming device non-stop right after 9/11. She was uncharacteristicly untalkative and retreated into the gaming. She had played video games before and after the tragedy but was never otherwise obsessed by them. She attended a downtown NYC elementary school at the time whose upper floors were in view of the Towers. I guess she was instinctively self medicating. This article was very interesting. Thank you!

    November 11, 2010 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. nick

    social networking is pretty silly,pick up the phone and call

    November 11, 2010 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Dianne

    Tetris is a great game... but after playing it and getting up to the final levels I was so consumed by the game that i would be so agitated that i had lost. Its vaguely amusing to think that it can actually help someone with PTSD. I think it caused it for me!! I wont play the game anymore!. (thanks to all the Men and Woman who continue to serve our Military. May God Bless you and Keep you Safe. )

    November 11, 2010 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Phil

    I'm shocked at the study. Did they tell the participants they would be subjected to PTSD to see if Tetris would then help them?

    People volunteered for this?

    November 11, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Justwondering

    K, how would they help a blind person with PTSD? Just saying because all of these treatments seem to be visual...

    November 11, 2010 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. rn_damia

    But what happens after playing tetris long enough that everything you see turns into tetris game pieces: walls, bookshelves, dressers..... stop the madness!

    November 11, 2010 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • WalkaMileinMyShoes

      Better trying to mentally stack everything in your sight than to think you're seeing tarantula-like things walking up the walls.

      November 11, 2010 at 10:38 | Report abuse |
  37. WalkaMileinMyShoes

    Before computer games were everywhere, I went through an assault. Took me a long time to get beyond it and learn how to use it - you went throught THAT, you can do anything. I forced it to become a strength. Too muleheaded to give ujp, I guess.

    Long before I reached that stage, I would have loved having even a silly computer game as a distraction. If It had even slightly helped me not have those nightmares and thoughts every minute, I would have welcomed it.

    November 11, 2010 at 10:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Barb

    I'm going through PTSD now (illness & loss of a beloved pet) and have coincidentally been playing bejweled a lot over the past few months. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes I cry while I'm playing. Grief is a tough road.

    November 11, 2010 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mok

      Sorry for the loss of your pet. I lost one of mine not too long ago. Sometimes it seems like it gets easier but it never really does. I wish you well.

      November 11, 2010 at 12:22 | Report abuse |
  39. bill

    tetris reduces flashbacks? not true! being a frequent user of lsd, i find tetris makes flashbacks worse!

    November 11, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. id

    I played Duke Nukem to relax way back when...didnt work but he kicked a$$

    November 11, 2010 at 12:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Ashling

    This is the stupidest thing I have heard in a long fucking time. When I was married the first time I was raped and beaten daily. And that wasn't the worst things he ever did. I have PTSD, and I have horrible flash backs. And let me tell you this. I have played Tetris since all this happened, and it did nothing to help with the flashbacks. Really people? Did you even think about this before you wrote it?

    November 11, 2010 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. someguy02

    This finding could actually be very helpful to troops on the ground. DoD should spend some $$ in developing this further, probably creating tetris-like apps that soldiers could use while deployed. Sounds silly at first, but if this means avoiding a lifetime of suffering for them at least this is worth a try.

    November 11, 2010 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Dianne

    I think that this game will help those who are able to emerge themselves in the game. It forces one to focus on the game with quick thinking and reactions, , and i can see where a serious player with PTSD would benefit. Not everyone is a "gamer" and would need to find other outlets. But seriously, if this IS working for some, lets not knock it!! PEACE

    November 11, 2010 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Garrett

    Call of Duty never helps me with my PTSD. I wonder why...

    November 11, 2010 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. joedogs

    thats cause word puzzles are more complicated than block/shape puzzles. whats this, the wheel of fortune game show? how many letters in the words? what level were the test subjects playing tetris on? i bet they get stressed out with the level crazy fast and lose.

    November 12, 2010 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Dr. John Grohol

    Why is CNN and Health.com regurgitating a study that was conducted in 2008 and published in January 2009 - at which time it was widely reported in the news? Here it is, nearly 2 years later, and the reporter who wrote the study acts as though this is a new study and it's never been reported on previously. And while there are helpful links back to Health.com all over the article, not a single link to the study itself - http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0004153

    November 12, 2010 at 08:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. ElizardBETH Crowinn Senior Big DOG Medical Gossip Spreader

    **************************************breaking news************************
    *****************************************************************TETRIS KILLS PEOPLE...........

    *****************************************************STAY TUNED********************************

    November 12, 2010 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. iknowwhy

    to Dr. John Grohol,
    because cnn socks up to duke, and duke is being the same ol harrassing duke as usual

    November 13, 2010 at 21:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. ohyeah

    seriously, duke socks worse than the devil itself cuz they have used and abused and killed and maimed and tortured in their ptsd studies ... and they get REAL mean when you complain about it. duke is ptsd itself

    November 13, 2010 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. andfurthermore

    how MANY millions (probably billions) of dollars have been wasted in NOT finding answers for PTSD sufferers that truly work by Duke? Look what they did to the Vietnam Vets, the blacks, the entire state of NC.
    And why is EMDR patented for HOW MANY YEARS!!! Tetris doesn't stop flashbacks and it doesn't lessen the occurance of them. Moving the eyes helps to refucus, as do many things, if YOU GIVE THE PERSON A CHANCE TO RECOVER FROM THE FLASHBACK BEFORE YOU KILL THEM YOU STOPID FOCKS. DUKE SOCKS And always will from my estimation.

    November 14, 2010 at 05:36 | Report abuse | Reply

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