Young PTSD victims misinterpret facial expressions, says study

A traumatic experience may ignite feelings of constant despair, fear and anxiety. People who have been victims of or witnesses to disturbing events are caught up in flashbacks and nightmares and find it extremely difficult to lead a normal life. People suffering from the aftereffects of trauma are known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological problem that exhibits itself as “fight-or-flight” response when faced with a similar situation.

A group of researchers from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University (NYU) has found that adolescents showing signs of PTSD are at a greater likelihood of misunderstanding sad and angry facial expressions as fearful. The scientists in their study, titled “Affect recognition among adolescents in therapeutic schools: relationships with posttraumatic stress disorder and conduct disorder symptoms” also revealed how teenagers with signs of conduct disorder are more likely to interpret sad faces as angry.

How trauma affects human understanding

The study published online in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health in November 2016 was based on the premise that teenagers with prior traumatic experiences are at a greater possibility of being afflicted with both PTSD and conduct disorder apart from behavioral and psychological problems. The adolescents may manifest comorbidity of the disorders and can have a negative effect on their well-being and healthy living. These co-occurring disorders may aggravate the possibility of substance abuse, psychological problems and tendency to self-harm, if left untreated.

Prior studies have also shown that PTSD-affected youth with conduct disorder symptoms have distorted emotional management often linked to hostile attitude and impaired social functioning. The authors of the study suggest that interpersonal problems arising out of trauma and fear may have something to do with misapprehending signals communicated using facial expressions. Elucidating the observations, one of the co-authors of the study Dr. Shabnam Javdani, assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt said, “Our findings suggest that exposure to stress and trauma can have acute emotional impacts that simply translate to misidentification of important affective cues.”

Assessing adolescents for PTSD and conduct disorder

The scientists for study purposes evaluated how teenagers aggrieved with PTSD and signs of conduct disorder interpreted facial expressions. They examined 371 adolescents, aged between 13 and 19 years, suffering from emotional and behavioral problems and who had been registered with therapeutic day schools in various cities. They found that roughly 85 percent of the teenagers had at least one conduct disorder symptom while 30 percent matched the criteria of conduct disorder. Apart from this, 17 percent of the adolescents showed at least one sign of PTSD while 12.4 percent met the necessary norms for being detected with PTSD. Overall, 17 percent of the teenaged respondents exhibited signs of both PTSD and conduct disorder.

The teenagers also completed a facial affect recognition task. The scientists found that those participants with emotional and behavioral problems faced greater difficulties in correctly pinpointing at angry faces compared with those showing fear or sadness. The teenagers, in particular, with greater PTSD symptoms were more likely to misconceive sadness and annoyance for fear. Javdani explained how fear response is crucial in understanding PTSD as the victims are in ‘survival mode’ that increases their threat perception.”

The scientists observed that teenagers having conduct disorder problems did not face much trouble in interpreting panic-stricken or angry faces though they misunderstood sad expressions. They also suggested that teenagers with increased levels of conduct disorder might be less efficient in identifying others’ emotions akin to sadness, pain and suffering. The level of difficulty in construing feelings of sadness as anger may result in reduced bonding, decreased empathy levels and callous attitude among teenagers with conduct disorder problems.

Recognizing PTSD and treating accordingly

It is necessary to treat PTSD timely as signs of the disorder may remain hidden for a prolonged period. Not all people manifest signs of the disorder immediately after their traumatic experiences. It may take months or years to experience the onset of symptoms. The findings of the study indicate how facial expressions may contribute in diagnosing and treating symptoms of PTSD and conduct disorder.

If you or your loved one is suffering from any form of mental illness including PTSD or any kind conduct disorder, connect with the Florida Mental Health Helpline to know about the most appropriate mental disorder treatment in Florida. You can chat online or call us at our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 to locate the best rehab centers in Florida offering therapeutic interventions to help a person regain control of his/her life.

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