Having a heart attack? Call 911 – and pack your Tetris game

by Carolyn Thomas

I confess that there was a time when I was ever so slightly addicted to playing the computer puzzle game Tetris.  Like many parents, I discovered it through my children during their early teen years.  Back then, I was known to occasionally “borrow” their little Gameboy and then stay up until 2 a.m. playing “just one more game” while trying to beat my previous best score. But U.K. researchers tell us that time-wasters like Tetris or other so-called “distractor tasks” might very well help to minimize the psychological effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We know that heart attack survivors have a disturbingly high incidence of undiagnosed PTSD.  Research reported in the British Journal of Health Psychology suggests, for example, that as many as 16% of cardiac survivors actually meet clinical criteria for acute PTSD, and a further 18% report moderate to severe PTSD symptoms.

So if distractor tasks such as playing an obsessively distracting computer puzzle game like Tetris can successfully help to treat PTSD in those affected by combat exposure, could playing Tetris also help heart attack survivors?  

First, we know that feelings of fear, anxiety and depression are common after a cardiac event. The findings of the British Journal of Health Psychology report suggest that:

 “… a high proportion of heart attack survivors experience very severe distress.  This has the potential to impair recovery, quality of life and threaten future health.”

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a debilitating emotional illness that can develop when you experience or even witness a dangerous, terrifying, or possibly life-threatening stressful event – an event that is outside the range of what’s considered to be a normal human experience.

About 7-8% of the general population will develop PTSD, but for military veterans, rape victims and, yes, heart attack survivors, researchers estimate that this number is actually well over 30%.

In a Tetris game, geometric objects in the shapes of T’s, L’s, I’s and squares fall down from the top of the computer screen, and the player must rapidly rotate and assemble them into solid rows. Most players describe Tetris as being surprisingly addictive, thus making it an ideal “distractor task”.

UK volunteers  in the Tetris study were exposed to extremely graphic images of distressing military combat scenes, but some of the study participants were then given the Tetris puzzle game to play 30 minutes afterwards, according to the Public Library of Science One journal.

Tetris players studied in the UK research reported significantly fewer terrifying “flashbacks” after experiencing the traumatic images compared to the non-Tetris players. Why is this?

One theory is that these distractor tasks may help to “disrupt the laying down of memories”, said the UK scientists. It’s almost as if the brain has trouble focusing on both the working memory of disturbing mental images if another distracting activity is taxing the brain at the same time.

Another study authored by investigators at the Mind Research Network and published in BMC Research Notes examined the MRI scans of subjects before and after a three-month Tetris practice period. The study showed that playing Tetris actually had two distinct physical effects on the brains of research subjects: some areas in the brain showed greater efficiency, and different areas showed thicker cortexes, a sign of more grey matter.

This result, says co-investigator Dr. Richard Haier, who undertook the study, suggests that:

“…  focusing on a ‘challenging visuo-spatial task’ like a video game can actually alter the structure of the brain, not just increase brain activity.”

Earlier studies have suggested that a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) while trying to retrieve disturbing images about past events in the treatment of PTSD can also help reduce the images’ vividness and emotionality. Again, the theory is that this may be due to both tasks competing for working memory resources.

EMDR is a form of non-drug, non-hypnosis psychotherapy that has been studied since 1987. That’s when California psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro found that having her patients move their eyes rapidly back and forth under clinical supervision seemed to help those suffering from PTSD.

The British Medical Journal even pronounced EMDR: “as equally effective as cognitive behavioural therapy at reducing the rate of PTSD.” 

The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that EMDR resulted in: “substantial and sustained reduction of PTSD and depression in most victims of adult-onset trauma.”

But according to Scientific American, the jury’s still out on EMDR’s practical application to other forms of treating traumatic memory.

Read more about the U.K. research on how playing Tetris can be used as a distractor task in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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4 thoughts on “Having a heart attack? Call 911 – and pack your Tetris game

  1. Pingback: Cholesterol Guide
  2. Pingback: Mental Disorders 101
  3. Very good post. This is Mary LG’s husband ( I am a psychologist trained in EMDR who treats trauma). She and I were discussing why Tetris might be helpful.

    The basis of EMDR is that we all have an Adaptive Information Processing system (AIP). When we are traumatized, the experience is too much for the AIP to handle and it becomes stored outside this system, and is therefore not processed effectively by the system.

    EMDR is used to move the experience into the AIP so normal processing can occur. Many clients I see and who have had great results with EMDR find that they still have the memories but feel like they are not emotional triggering and they just want to “move on.” They don’t matter anymore.

    My thought (and this is only conjecture, not a researched outcome) is that Tetris involves many areas of the brain, and especially the frontal lobe (executive functioning, spatial relations). This area of the brain is critical for the AIP. By playing Tetris, you are spreading your cognitions into a wide area of the brain which would allow for processing the experience. The AIP is kicked into gear and the person does not experience the memories as overwhelming.

    One of the key concepts in neurolobiology is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” So, if you fire many neurons from all around the brain, especially the frontal lobe, you will be using much more of your brain to process the experience and emotions will be countered, for example, by “rational” thoughts (“I am safe now,” “It was only a picture,” “I survived”).

    So, Tetris could be another way of triggering the AIP to do its normal natural and effective job of processing.

    Just some thoughts…


    Robert Land, Psy.D

    useful website: emdr.com

    Liked by 1 person

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