Playing Tetris Can Reduce PTSD Symptoms

By David Konow 04/04/17

The old school video game may offer a necessary distraction for those battling post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Comic Con attendee plays Tetris Ultimate during Comic Con 2014.

Many used to deride video games as a mindless activity, but gaming has progressed a lot further since the days of Pac-Man. In recent years, video games have also proven to be a powerful weapon in people fighting diseases, like the onset of Alzheimer's.

Now a report in Ars Technica says that Tetris, the classic video game that first debuted in 1984, has been an effective tool in helping people battle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by blocking painful memories that can overwhelm people who’ve suffered from trauma.

Research on the positive effects of Tetris began at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden by psychologist Emily Holmes. In playing Tetris, Holmes discovered there was a period in a patient’s memory where a traumatic recollection could be interrupted.

As Holmes told CNN, “An intrusive memory is a visual memory of a traumatic event. Tetris also requires imagination and vision. Your brain can’t do two things at once, so this interrupts.”

In the United Kingdom, patients who suffered car accidents had also played Tetris in the hospital several hours after the crashes. The patients who played Tetris suffered fewer traumatic flashbacks, about eight times a week on average—than the patients who didn’t play it, who on average were getting over 20 flashbacks per week after the event. This means that Tetris potentially cut down the PTSD flashbacks by as much as 62%.

As the researchers concluded, “Brief, science-driven intervention offers a low-intensity means that could substantially improve the mental health of those who have experienced psychological trauma.” And if a patient isn’t a fan of Tetris, a game like Candy Crush should work fine as well. “Any task with high visuospatial demands is likely to be useful within the procedure.”

Even more beneficial, playing games like Tetris can also help in blocking addictive behavior. A study in 2015 that tested 31 volunteers discovered that playing Tetris, even for several minutes, helped reduce their addictive cravings by 13.9%. As this study noted, a lot of addiction can be driven by visual fantasies in the brain, which video games are apparently good at blocking as well.

While it’s hard to tell what the long-term effects of video game therapy could yield, the current research is indeed getting good results, and perhaps video games eventually will one day be an established and powerful tool in fighting addiction and PTSD. 

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.