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Mental Health Center

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Busy Hands in Hard Times May Prevent PTSD

Distractions May Ward Off Traumatic Flashbacks
WebMD Health News

March 9, 2004 -- Keeping your hands busy during a traumatic event may help ward off posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study.

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 nothing.

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 dead bodies.

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 all.

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.

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