Young PTSD victims misinterpret facial expressions

Young PTSD victims misinterpret facial expressions

Uncontained anxiety and flashbacks are common after one has gone through a harrowing experience. Clinicians often diagnose people suffering from the aftereffects of trauma with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological problem that exhibits itself as “fight-or-flight” response when faced with such a 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 revealed how teenagers with signs of conduct disorder are more likely to misconstrue sad facial gestures as angry.

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 other behavioral and psychological problems. The disorders can co-occur in some cases which can have a negative effect on overall well-being. It can also aggravate the possibility of substance abuse, psychosocial dysfunction and self-harm, if left untreated.

Previous research has 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.

Assessing adolescents for PTSD and conduct disorder

The researchers examined 371 adolescents, aged between 13 and 19 years, suffering from emotional and behavioral problems and registered with therapeutic day schools in Chicago or Providence, Rhode Island. It was found that roughly 85 percent of the teenagers were suffering from at least one conduct disorder while 30 percent displayed prominent signs of conduct disorder. Also, 17 percent showed at least one sign of PTSD while 12.4 percent met the necessary norms for being detected with PTSD. On an overall basis, 17 percent of the teenaged respondents had exhibited signs of both PTSD and conduct disorder.

The teenagers were then asked to complete a facial affect recognition task. The scientists found that participants with emotional and behavioral problems faced greater difficulties in correctly pinpointing at angry faces compared with those showing fear or sadness. Those with greater PTSD symptoms misconceived sadness and annoyance for fear. According to the co-author of the study and assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, Dr. Shabnam Javdani, “Fear is particularly relevant for understanding PTSD, as the disorder has been associated with a ‘survival mode’ of functioning characterized by an overactive fight-or-flight response and increased threat perception.”

The researchers also observed that teenagers with conduct disorder problems did not face much trouble in correctly interpreting irate or panic-stricken faces though they showed some inhibition in interpreting sad expressions. It could be due to the fact that teenagers with increased levels of conduct disorder might be less efficient in identifying others’ emotions akin to sadness, pain and suffering.

The difficulty in construing feelings of sadness and misunderstanding sadness as anger may result in reduced affective bonding, decreased empathy levels and callous attitude among teenagers with conduct disorder problems.

Road to recovery

Most people with PTSD are left untreated, as signs of the disorder may remain hidden for a prolonged period. Another reason being that not all people manifest signs of the disorder immediately after their traumatic experiences. The findings of the study indicate how gauging the correctness of recognizing facial expressions may help to diagnose symptoms of PTSD and conduct disorder.

It is necessary for psychologists to impart treatment basis an effective diagnostic assessment. If you or your loved one is suffering from any form of mental illness including PTSD or a conduct disorder, connect with the Florida Mental Health Helpline to find out the best options in 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.

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