Manage Stress with Tetris? Yes, that is an option, according to Attuned Psychology clinical psychologist, Cara Crothers

Can you manage stress with Tetris? Understanding what leads to and how to recover from stressful events

July 6, 2019

Recently, I got some insights into how to manage stress when I came across a podcast of an interview with neuro-opthamologist Dr Mithu Storoni called “How Our Brains Control Our Happiness”. Now, Dr Storoni, who describes herself as a physician, researcher, author and speaker, is interested in chronic stress and its implications on mental well-being, decision-making, performance, and brain health….and within about 5 minutes of hearing her speak, I was fascinated.

Before I share with you why this was so, as well as some ‘key points’ I think really relate to my work as a Clinical Psychologist, I should point out that this woman really seems to know her stuff. ​She qualified in Medicine from the University of Cambridge and trained in Ophthalmology, before undertaking research at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery (London) where she was a Clinical Research Fellow before relocating to Hong Kong. She has spoken and written on a variety of topics in this field, has been ​featured in ​the Times of London, The Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, the South China Morning Post, BBC Radio 2, Inc., Forbes, Psychology Today, Prevention Magazine, and ​Psych Central, and has written her own book “Stress Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body – And Be More Resilient Every Day” (a book I am currently working my way through, and loving).

3 revelations that lead to insights into how to manage stress

Given the specs above, I was willing to listen and take on board what she had to say, which was this….

Stress does not start in the body, it starts in the brain.

There is a direct pathway between stress and insulin resistance.

We become inflamed every time we become stressed.

Bright light at night, shifts your stress hormone profile the next day.

What we do directly after a stressful event can dramatically shape how our brain and body responds to that stress.

A single trip to the sauna may reduce symptoms of depression for at least six weeks… and much, much, more.

I wish I had the time and space to go through each of these, and all the other amazing things she has found and compiled about stress and the body, but as I don’t, let me just outline a few (those I have highlighted).

“Stress does not start in the body, it starts in the brain”.

This one might possibly be the best, or most commonly known piece of the information above and it directly relates to what stress ​is… I think Dr Storoni captures it nicely when she explained that “stress is the result of the brain perceiving some kind of threat to your existence”. If you are or have ever been a client of mine, or any other psychologist, or have ever looked into stress or anxiety, it is likely you have had this idea explained to you…the brain’s primary job is to ​keep you safe, hence the need to be on the look-out for possible threats. These threats can be physical, environmental, or emotional. If the brain perceives a threat related to any of these areas, we experience stress.

What really stood out for me, was Dr Storoni’s information regarding how psychosocial stress, which is the stress that comes from social threats, is becoming regarded as the most potent form of stress in our current age. She spoke of two particular forms of psychosocial stress that really caught my attention; “subordination stress” and effort-reward imbalance. Subordination stress refers to the stress you might feel when someone is making you feel inferior, and effort-reward stress was explained as the stress you might feel if you believe you’re not being rewarded for your effort (not being thanked, given that raise, promoted despite a stellar perfomance etc). Both are certainly stressors that people have spoken about in my office. However, it wasn’t just these terms (and their explanations) that caught my attention, it was how she used them to explain another of the ‘discoveries’ listed above…

“We become inflamed every time we become stressed”.

Dr Storoni explained that when we experience stress, our body immediately becomes inflamed. Now, this is not exactly the kind of inflammation we might get when we say, hit our thumb and have it swell up, but rather one based in our gut, in our internal systems, and in our immune system (which I might go into at another time as it is a new and fascinating field of study). Although it seems that while we may indeed become inflamed every time, it is more about how often this occurs that is problematic. If it occurs at a pace that allows us to recover afterward, and which is neither too intense, nor too chronic, we can manage this and stay relatively healthy. However, when it occurs too frequently to allow proper recovery between stressful experiences, too intensely, or if we do not take appropriate measures to reduce our response to the stress, ​then it can begin to be problematic. Dr Storoni demonstrated this by explaining that someone who is in an environment where they constantly experience say, the subordination stress mentioned above, is more susceptible to getting a cold, and can cause them to take longer to recover from that cold. Something to consider in the workplace isn’t it?!

What we do directly after a stressful event can dramatically shape how our brain and body responds to that stress.

The last of the points I’ve highlighted to share with you, is that how we behave after a stressful event can significantly impact both how long our brain perceives us to be under stress, as well as how it responds and reacts to that stress.

Dr Storoni explained this by again using a nicely relate-able example (that I will relay as I couldn’t do a better job of it). She explained that, say we were called into our boss’ office and yelled at for exactly 2 minutes (a stressful and quite traumatic experience that no-one would enjoy), and you then went and sat on the couch with a cup of tea to try and recover, then your mind is relatively empty and will go back and start replaying what just happened to try and make sense of it. The problem with this is that, as our memory is so fresh, and our emotions are already reactive and have a strong negativity bias (basically, assuming the worst), then every time you replay the scene, you keep your emotions reactive and your emotions stimulate all the pathways that keep your stress hormones flowing and active, and your brain, in effect, still thinks it is living the event. In other words, the 2 minute experience has now turned into an hour long experience as you sit on the couch and re-live it over and over again. While that may not be hugely problematic if it happens only every now and then, or even just once a day, if we kept this up all day long, and over stressors that were quite everyday (people cutting us off in traffic, spilling our coffee over our desk, conflict with those around us), them instead of say 5 experiences of a 2 minute stressor, which would result in
only 10 minutes of stress for the day, it has now become more like 5 experiences of say, an hour (depending on how long you keep replaying events in your mind) which could total 5 hours of stress for the day! No thanks!

So, what to do to prevent this? Dr Storoni’s advice? “After a stressful experience is over, never do nothing!”. She recommends always doing something that is even more intense (as counter intuitive as that may seem), and which engages your mind – ideally something you enjoy so that your mind doesn’t have the chance to wonder and end up replaying the stressful event that just occurred. And the best bit…she herself uses the game of TETRIS to do this!!

Dr Storoni explains that Tetris is actually a great example of something that is easily accessible, and as long as we enjoy it, and have it set easy enough that is it challenging but do-able, it’s a great activity to “hook into” after a stressful event to allow us time for our emotional reactivity to go down. Once you’ve done that, you can revisit the event and it’s less likely to spark the same reactions as it initially did.

Tetris to recover from stress….who’d have thought?!

So, if you’ve noticed that you’re experiencing stress throughout more of your day than you’d care too, or if you would just like to try and minimise it’s impact, why not give the above ideas some thought, or contact Attuned Psychology here to make an appointment ​with one of our experienced psychologists.

Cara Crothers
Clinical Psychologist
Attuned Psychology Adelaide


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