Police Psychology | PTSD 4: Flashbacks

Posted: May 10, 2017 in Police Stress
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Police Psychology | PTSD 4:  Flashbacks

Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP


Of course, you are going to think I’ve lost it on this one, but it shows some merit.  And it makes some sense logically.  Researchers in England  say that flashbacks from traumatic events can be moderated through playing Tetris right after the event occurs.  That’s Tetris, the video game where you move puzzle pieces in all directions to make lines or blocks. etc. Makes you wonder if Candy Crush can be used for Ragin’ Anxiety and Donkey Kong and the Mario brothers could be used to sew up Open Heart Surgery!

So the thought is this: by playing a video game after a serious traumatic incident, you are stimulating your eye movement and concentration and that causes the brain to not be able to spend all its time to store long term memories, thus it doesn’t keep coming back into your head as much.  In fact, in the medical journal called Molecular Psychiatry in March of this year told of a study that gave people Tetris after a traumatic incident and others were given a placebo or basically nothing.  The Tetris group had 9 flashbacks the next week while the nothing groups had 23 flashback the next week.  Pretty significant!  Oxford University in England and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden said just 20 minutes of Tetris right after a traumatic incident was all that was needed to greatly reduce all PTSD effects.  Scientific America reported the same effect in their study.  In fact, case studies are cropping up all over saying that Tetris therapy is great at reducing flashbacks if given in the hospital after car accident, witnessing shootings and even rape.  Let me get this right, (doctor calls out to nurse):  scalpel…suture…bandage…Gameboy.  This doesn’t make sense to me, but let’s look at it a little closer…

One of the treatments that is put forth by some practitioners in police psychology for trauma, including my buddy Roger Solomon, is EMDR or Eye Movement Desentization Re-Processing.  Essentially in its original form, it is about focusing the eyes on an object or finger moving back and forth while concentrating.  There is some decent research on this technique that it work to overcame visual images of an event.  Sounds like Tetris to me, at least in some basic elements.  Should we be surprised that concentrating on a visual stimulus might reduce flashbacks? 

One of the earliest treatments for trauma was staring at a bubbling vat of animal fat, a visual stimulus.  It was done by Mesmer and birthed the term “mesmerized.”  Maybe he wasn’t so much a quack as he was called by the French commission led by Antoine Louis Guillotine (yes the head chopper guy).  We also know that concentration relaxes people.  Calms them down.  Could this be the effect causing less flashbacks?

In another study, they found if people were given the beta blocker propranolol seem to reduce flashbacks.  The drug reduces the epinephrine and norepinephrine in the system by binding it.  They are heavily involved in the fight-flight response.  Can this be related?  Stop the fight-flight response very early and it reduces flashbacks, make the PTSD less pervasive.  Sure, would make sense. 

Flashbacks can be very devastating to people who have been through a trauma.  People having flashbacks can get transfixed on them and feel the fear like they were going through the event again.  In terms of rape, I have seen girls lose track of who they were with in the room or even get shakes when approach by their own fathers.  I’ve seen grown men break down with fear on their face and cry when they flashback to times in Iraq or Vietnam.  In terms of police, I have seen officers stare into the distance shaking with car accidents or shootings past.  It is a scary thing when they get reminded by some small cue like a bird hitting a window, a car crash on the side of the road, or even just a smell and it send them into a flashback, a reliving of their incident.  Flashbacks can become so scary that people go into depressions or anxiety attacks just on the thought that one might occur.

One of the ways to counteract when a flashback happens is to get the person in the present as quickly as you can.  Get them grounded in the present.  Sometimes you put ice on their face or in their hand, or spray lemon scent around, or put the lemon in their mouth, or make them smell peppermint.  Long term reduction techniques include EMDR and practicing mindfulness.  Those are more for future articles.  For now, we are looking at preventing them in the first place.

If excess of visual images seems to work, we should practice this as a matter of course.  This is an area that is begin for research particularly with police officers, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be done by psychologists.  In fact, it could be done by people going through an incident, a superior officer, or perhaps a person could use it on a friend.  Self-protection, self-help, and the help of others is much quicker and more consistent than help applied by your department or waiting for a psychologist to respond.

So, if Tetris while you or your friend are in a hospital right after an incident can reduce the flashbacks, pass the Gameboy or IPAD or whatever.  Who knows, we all might be better for it down the road.


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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