Loving Interactions Decrease Impact of PTSD, Brain Scans Find
People affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly experience symptoms that include prominently negative states of mind and an inability to control fearful emotions associated with the built-in human “fight-or-flight” response. In a study published in November 2014 in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter looked at what happens when individuals dealing with PTSD or other stress-related conditions witness or participate in loving or affectionate social interactions. These researchers concluded that exposure to such interactions can help turn off the fight-or-flight response and contribute to relief of emotional trauma.
PTSD, Hyperarousal and Negativity
Loss of control over the body’s built-in fight-or-flight response is known as hyperarousal. People in a hyperaroused state constantly scan their surrounding environments for potential threats, even in situations that pose little or no realistic chance of actually encountering such threats. Emotions associated with a hyperaroused state include fear, irritability, anger and jumpiness or jitteriness. When these emotions are triggered, an affected person may react in unpredictable ways that (in some cases) include acts of aggression or outright rage. A person in a hyperaroused state may also center his or her social behavior on a need to remain vigilant about the possible emergence of a threat.
Hyperarousal is one of four symptom categories used by doctors to diagnose PTSD. A second category is a substantial and damaging increase in negative thought processes and emotional responses. Potential manifestations of such an increase include loss of at least some of the ability to respond to others in a loving or supportive way, avoidance of relationships, lack of trust in others, loss of the ability to recall details of a traumatic experience and a generally “down” outlook on life or the world.
Brain’s Emotional Control Center
The brain’s emotional control center is a structure called the amygdala. When you encounter a situation capable of provoking a fearful response, immediate information on that situation goes straight to this structure. In addition, more detailed information passes through a threat assessment system that takes a bit longer to reach the amygdala. When this threat assessment is complete, the amygdala decides whether to activate the fear-based fight-or-flight response (which produces things such as increased muscle tension, a spike in blood pressure, a spike in heart rate and excessive sweat production). Since a person with PTSD can perceive threats in situations that other people don’t typically consider threatening, he or she frequently feels the emotional pull of this response.
Impact of Loving Interactions on PTSD
In the study published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, University of Exeter researchers used a real-time brain-scanning technology called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to explore the potential impact of loving interactions on the fearful, hyperaroused responses of people affected by emotional trauma-based conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. A total of 42 people took part in this project. None of these individuals had diagnosable symptoms of PTSD or any other mental health condition; however, some of the participants had higher indications of anxiety than others.
During the study, each participant was shown images of people interacting with each other in affectionate ways or otherwise exhibiting loving or supportive behavior. After viewing these images, each participant was exposed to a second set of images that featured threat-related words or people making faces normally associated with threatening behavior toward others. During these activities, the researchers used fMRI scans to track changes in each individual’s amygdala. After reviewing the results of these scans, they concluded that exposure to loving, affectionate or supportive human interactions essentially weakens the threat response in the amygdala and helps deter the activation of fearful emotional reactions. The researchers also concluded that this weakened fearful response occurred even when the study participants did not specifically focus on the affectionate, supportive imagery in front of them. Those individuals with the highest anxiety levels were most likely to experience a reduction in their fearful reactions.
The study’s authors believe their findings may provide an improved understanding of the connection between strong social support and heightened chances of recovering from PTSD and other emotional trauma-related ailments. Their findings may also lead to an improvement in the treatments provided for people affected by PTSD. The authors are continuing their investigation of the emotional reactions in individuals dealing with trauma-related conditions and certain other mental health issues.