Avoiding fear hikes soldiers’ PTSD risk

U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US) — Looking only briefly at expressions of fear may indicate a susceptibility to post traumatic stress
disorder, a finding particularly concerning for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through a series of eye-tracking experiments, researchers found soldiers who only glanced at faces of fear are less psychologically resilient after stressful combat-zone experiences than those who gaze longer at the same images.

The study, one of the first to investigate whether cognitive processing, measured before soldiers were sent to a war zone, predicts PTSD symptoms, also found that soldiers who fixate on sad faces are more susceptible to depression if they also experienced higher levels of war zone stress.

The research is published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers gave 139 soldiers in the U.S. Army with no history of combat experiences eye-tracking tests to gauge their propensity to avoid or fixate on emotional stimuli. For 30 seconds, they viewed images of faces in four emotional states: happy, sad, fearful, and neutral. The respondents also completed a series of tests and interviews to determine any pre-existing mental health conditions.

While serving in Iraq, the participants filled out a Web-based combat experience log every 30 days, reporting any stressful or traumatic experiences such as witnessing a roadside bomb or participating in a firefight. After indicating exposures, the respondents rated the severity of their stress reactions in an online questionnaire, allowing researchers to determine the severity of PTSD and depression symptoms.

Soldiers who briefly viewed fear stimuli in the pre-deployment eye-tracking experiments required only nine war zone stressors to reach the cut-off score for probable diagnosis for PTSD. Those who lingered longer on fearful faces required 17 war zone stressors.

Soldiers at risk for PTSD avoid images of threat, partly as a way to regulate their emotional response to them, says Christopher Beevers, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin.

This tendency to avoid threat-related information may interfere with natural processing of traumatic events when they occur in the soldier’s life, setting the stage for vulnerability to anxiety.

Pinpointing factors that may predispose service members to PTSD, could lead to more effective early prevention programs, Beevers says.

“Prevention programs that help soldiers better cope with their war-zone experiences, and the emotions that result from them, might be particularly beneficial for those who are susceptible to anxiety disorders or depression.”

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

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