Busy Hands in Hard Times May Prevent PTSD
Distractions May Ward Off Traumatic Flashbacks
March 9, 2004 -- Keeping your hands busy during a traumatic
event may help ward off posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a
Researchers say the findings may explain why worry beads and
other traditional practices designed to distract people from their troubles are
popular and sometimes effective.
The study showed that people who tapped out a specified pattern
with their fingers while watching a traumatic film with horrific images had
significantly fewer flashbacks or other disturbing memories than those who did
Uncontrollable flashbacks or intrusive memories of a traumatic
event are a hallmark of PTSD.
The results of this study are only preliminary, but "it
does suggest that there may be a psychological way to reduce post-trauma
intrusions, rather than a medical way such as taking medication," says
researcher Emily A. Holmes of University College London, in a news release.
The findings appear in the March issue of the Journal of
Experimental Psychology: General.
Distractions May Deter PTSD
In the study, researchers tested the effects of using different
types of distractions on people who watched a 12.5-minute traumatic video
including footage of the aftermath of actual car accidents and workers moving
In tests, participants either tapped out a specified pattern on
a hidden keyboard (a visuospatial task), counted down by threes (a verbal
task), or nothing at all while watching the film.
During the following week, they recorded any intrusive memories
of the video in a diary.
Researchers found that those who performed the tapping task
reported significantly fewer intrusive memories than those who did nothing at
In addition, the study showed that those who performed the
verbal task actually experienced a greater number of disturbing flashbacks and
memories than those who did nothing.
Researchers say the findings support the notion that people
process traumatic events on many different levels in the brain. For example,
performing a verbal task may limit the type of conceptual processing needed to
help people "make sense" of disturbing images.
In contrast, performing tasks that involve more than one sense,
such as a visuospatial ones like tapping or rubbing on beads, might interfere
and limit the processing and encoding of traumatic images in the brain and lead
to fewer flashbacks.
Researchers say more study is needed to better understand these
effects and to determine if distractions such as these might also be effective
in preventing PTSD when done immediately after trauma.