Harvard Mental Health Letter

Manipulating memory to overcome fear

Researchers are exploring new ways to treat or even prevent anxiety disorders.

The dramatic landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009, and the subsequent rescue of all 155 people aboard, was a testament not only to good aviation training, but also to the calm and focused demeanor of the plane's pilot and crew during the crisis. But in several interviews afterward, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and his crew spoke of experiencing flashbacks, feeling distracted, and having trouble sleeping — all typical reactions following a trauma.

Although plane crashes fortunately are rare, people live through other sorts of emotional and physical challenges all the time. These events may become traumatic in part because a person may replay them mentally over and over again. While many people eventually recover from the emotional aftereffects of trauma, others develop anxiety disorders. Psychotherapies can help patients become desensitized to fear-inducing memories, but they don't work for everyone.

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