Pro-choice protestors outside the University of Texas. (File Photo) Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What the hell actually happened in Texas last night?

Chaos and confusion in the Capitol.

If you don't know what's happening in Austin right now, then chances are you haven't opened Twitter in the last few hours. The internet practically exploded last night, as protesters in the public gallery of the Texas State Senate unleashed a pandemonium of screaming in support of the heroic Wendy Davis, a state senator who was on her feet speaking for ten hours. Davis had been working to filibuster a particularly horrific anti-abortion bill which would limit access to abortion-causing pills and reduce the number of clinics in the state effectively to just five.

After a chaotic few hours of waiting, it now looks certain that the bill, known as SB5, has indeed been killed – and by a matter of moments. The official record of the vote is that it took place at 12:03 – three minutes past the time when the special session closed. Under Texas law, that means it didn't pass.

If this sounds like a bit of a procedural drama, it was. But it was an extremely dramatic one, especially for the last fifteen minutes, and if there's anything the internet loves, it's a good melodrama – just look at the tweets-per-minute data of the event.

Republicans in the chamber at first claimed victory, and the Associated Press reported that the vote had passed. But the internet raised a hue and cry: when the result was first posted, the date-stamp was today's; it was quickly changed, but not fast enough that the internet missed it. The two screencaps are here.

The senators were recalled to the chamber for an emergency caucus, and the screen-caps above were shown in the  chamber. Moments ago, after an agonisingly long discussion, the Lt. Governor of Texas, David Dewhurst, announced that the vote had been out of time and invalid – the filibuster was successful. Few people have seen politics this electrifying in living memory. More than 170 thousand people were watching the live-stream of the chamber by midnight, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night on the east coast.

This is the moment when, with fifteen minutes to go before midnight, Davis' colleague, senator Leticia Van De Putte, struggling to be heard, asked what a female senator had to do to be heard over her male colleagues; causing the cheering to begin from the public gallery. The cheering continued, drowning out the attempts of the chamber to vote, until after midnight.

A filibuster is famous for being at the heart of some of the most exciting moments of US political history. It is when a politician attempts to run out the clock on a debate, by speaking for a prolonged amount of time in order to prevent a vote on a particular topic. In Washington today, however, moments these are rare. Just the threat of a filibuster – like that of a Presidential veto – is usually enough to upset the course of a bill these days, though earlier this year libertarian Senator Rand Paul filibustered for thirteen hours to protest about the President's drone policies.

So what happens next? Once the confusion calms down – this was the scene inside the Senate chamber just a few moments before the emergency session announced that the bill had not passed – Republicans may try to mount a legal challenge. Some supporters of SB5 are already saying that they will try to re-introduce the bill at the next special senate. The democratic body of Texas was overruled last night not by debate or campaigning, or even, in the end, by the heroic Senator Davis, but by a grass-roots of people in the public gallery. It was not politics by the books; it was politics at its most raw, and the Republicans will respond.

The exciting part is probably over. But it has been an unforgettable night.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Show Hide image

Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.