How Swimming Rats May Help Sufferers of PTSD

Researchers exploring the connections between stress and memory may have explained part of how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works, and they’ve done it by sending lab rats for a swim. One of the toughest symptoms of PTSD is trauma flashbacks that are triggered by seemingly unrelated circumstances and scenarios. This makes it difficult for a therapist or counselor to prepare his or her client for such a situation, as opposed to a clearly-related scenario that resembles a person or place involved in the trauma. Knowing that ordinary, unrelated memories can trigger trauma flashbacks, researchers at three academic institutions (Rockefeller University, the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center, and the Czech Republic’s Academy of Sciences) teamed up to explore how stress influences memory formation.

The study was fairly straightforward. First the researchers taught rats how to distinguish left from right within a T-shaped maze. The next day, they put some of the rats in a shallow pan of water and other rats in a bucket of water, the latter of which stressed the rats by requiring them to swim. Then they sent all of the rats back through the maze. Those who had been stressed performed better in the maze: their memories for learning left and right were stronger than they had been the day before, even though the maze had nothing to do with being forced to swim.

What does this tell counselors and therapists about PTSD? It explains how seemingly unrelated triggers can become triggers. When an individual experiences trauma, the stress of that situation can re-activate and enhance previous, non-traumatic memories. This connection, in itself, does not immediately alter the cognitive behavioral therapy used for PTSD counseling, but it may serve as the first step toward future progress. Our growing understanding of PTSD symptoms helps therapists treat patients living with the condition. Likewise, a growing understanding of how trauma impacts the brain may even help soldiers and others to minimize that impact in the first place, buffering against PTSD. With research continually growing, no one knows how this knowledge will be applied years from now.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nathan Hauritz

    Nathan Hauritz

    December 29th, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    It’s amazing how Seemingly unrelated things like these can have such a major effect on us humans and how it can help future science.
    It feels great to read about such stories as they are bout making people s lives better.

  • Doug


    December 29th, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    PTSD is such a puzzle, isn’t it? It’s good to see more light being shed on its mysteries. Hopefully one day the condition will no longer hold any secrets and therapists will have all the tools possible to hand that helps them help their PTSD clients.

  • Paris


    December 29th, 2010 at 2:38 PM

    That’s an interesting study! With these ongoing wars I don’t see any shortage of soldiers needing PTSD support and treatment anytime soon sadly. More are coming home broken all the time and it’s up to our government to do everything in their power to heal them.

  • Penny


    December 29th, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    Those poor rats…how much understanding can we really get from studying a rat’s mind and comparing that to our own? Deliberately stressing them in the name of science is cruel.

  • adam


    December 30th, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    You’re right Penny. Let’s throw people in pools that can hardly swim instead and see how much better the results are. That was sarcasm by the way. Animal studies save lives, period. If you don’t want to know what happens in a lab, don’t read the article. They can swim, you know.

  • Jen


    January 3rd, 2011 at 9:41 PM

    It seems likely that the reason the rats performed better has to do with the affect of adrenaline on memory, which — while not yet completely understood — is emerging as a relevant factor in a variety of recent memory related studies.

  • Faith


    January 4th, 2011 at 5:41 AM

    @Adam: touchy, touch. I think that you do have to realize that there are many people out there who know that scientific study is necessary but that does not always mean that they are comfortable with the methods. And I highly disagree when you say that you should just not read the article. Ignorance is not bliss you know. Maybe the more that someone reads about a subject the more familiar with it he or ahe will become and will be able to overcome some of the squeamishness that they may feel about it.

  • Eiman


    July 13th, 2015 at 5:21 AM

    This is accurate. I have PTSD and I would say swimming makes me breathe its like a emotional release

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on