New research by Welsh academics shows that a patient’s pupils can reveal if they have suffered a traumatic experience in the past.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur when a person has experienced a traumatic event such as a medical emergency, combat stress, or abuse. They can be left in a state of hyperarousal, or greater sensitivity to everyday events.
The research, published in the journal Biological Psychology, looked for traces of traumatic events in the eyes of patients who experiencing PTSD. It measured participants’ pupil response to negative and positive images, and showed that patients with PTSD not only showed an exaggerated response to threatening stimuli, but also to stimuli that depicted ‘positive’ image such as exciting sports scenes.
Swansea University’s Professor Nicola Gray, who co-authored the paper along with Professor Robert Snowden of Cardiff University, believes this is an important finding.
She said: “This shows that the hyper-response of the pupil is in response to any arousing stimulus, and not just threatening ones. This may allow us to use these positive pictures in therapy, rather than relying upon negative images, that can be quite upsetting to the patient, and therefore make therapy more acceptable and bearable. This idea now needs testing empirically before it is put into clinical practice.”
Dr McKinnon, who is now at Oxford University, added: “These findings allow us to understand that people with PTSD are automatically primed for threat and fear responses in any uncertain emotional context, and to consider what a burden this must be to them in everyday life.
“It also suggests that it is important for us to recognise that, in therapy, it is not just the fear-based stimuli that need deliberately re-appraising.
“If someone with PTSD is faced with any high-level of emotional stimulation, even if this is positive emotion, it can immediately trigger the threat system. Clinicians need to understand this impact of positive stimuli in order to support their service-users overcome the significant challenges they face.”
People with PTSD often relive traumatic events through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of irritability, isolation and guilt. The mental health condition can also cause problems with sleeping, eating, and daily functioning, and have a significant impact on someone’s life. While PTSD can occur immediately after someone experiences an upsetting event, it can occur weeks, months, or even years later.
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