New research provides evidence that experiences of early life stress are associated with atypical responses towards emotional facial expressions in adulthood. The findings have been published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.
“One of the things that drives me as a researcher is how we can improve the experiences of people with mental illness, by developing better treatments and clearer knowledge of these health conditions,” explained Elizabeth Kirkham (@EK_Neuro), a research associate at the University of Edinburgh and the corresponding author of the study.
“Early life stress and trauma are a huge factor in the development of mental illness later in life – I think society in general is still not aware of how close the relationship between early stress and later health (mental and physical) really is. If we can understand more about early life stress then we can understand more about how mental illness develops, which in turn will help us find better ways of reducing the suffering of people living with mental health conditions.”
In the study, 395 participants completed the Child Abuse and Trauma Scale after being shown photographs depicting angry, happy, and neutral facial expressions. The participants indicated the extent to which they would approach the person in the image and the extent to which they would avoid the person.
The researchers found that participants who experienced more stressful life events in childhood and adolescence tended to be less avoidant of people with angry facial expressions.
“Our results were surprising — that early life stress is associated with reduced, not increased, avoidance of anger in people with no signs of mental ill health. This is the opposite of what we expected,” Kirkham told PsyPost.
But Kirkham said the findings indicate that early life stress “doesn’t have to be extreme to affect emotional processing. Very few of the people in our study had histories of extreme trauma or neglect, yet the stress that they did experience as children was linked to both their mental health and their responses to emotional information as adults.”
“This is important when we think about our social environment — investing in the quality of children’s early life is likely to pay dividends later on in terms of the health of the wider society.”
The relationship between early life stress and reduced avoidance of angry facial expressions was not found among participants who showed signs of depression and anxiety. More depressed participants, however, did tend to be more avoidant of happy facial expressions.
“We were also surprised that that was no relationship between early life stress and avoidance of anger amongst people with evidence of mental illness, even though the expected relationship between depression and avoidance of happy facial expressions was present,” Kirkham said.
“Therefore it’s important that additional work is carried out to examine what is going on here and why the effects of early life stress are different from what might have been predicted from previous research. I suspect it might be connected to the fact that previous research has focused on children with extreme early life stress, whereas we focused on adults with relatively low levels of early life stress.”
“I’d be very happy to hear from researchers or students who share my interest in early life stress and its effects on the adult brain. There’s still a lot to be discovered within this field,” Kirkham added.
“The dark night of the soul is a journey into light, a journey from your darkness into the strength and hidden resources of your soul.” ~Caroline Myss
Growing up in a household with both parents, my grandmothers, and pets, people often assumed we were the picture-perfect family. I participated in dance classes, sports, and we also had a lot of extended family gatherings. We lived in a pretty nice neighborhood, went to good schools, and both of my parents worked and were educated.
But, from a very young age, I witnessed and experienced frightening events and images no child should ever have to see and go through. While I normalized these ongoing inappropriate and tragic images and incidents, I had no idea what they were doing to my mental and emotional health.
I was often afraid to go to bed as a child—I knew I would wet it and that I’d be ridiculed by my father the next morning for doing so.
Family members and friends would constantly point out to me that I would jump and flinch at any loud noise and in my teens till early twenties, people who knew me well told me I was defensive, ready to fight, and had a chip on my shoulder.
They were right.
Being raised in a hectic household felt like a pressure-cooker that kept me on high-alert and walking around on eggshells.
While my family was good at making sure we had a roof over head, they were also good at making sure I did not divulge family secrets, kept up appearances at all times, and were ultra-focused on image-management.
In fact, they were so good at convincing us we were stable and normal that I overlooked my father’s love of rage, intense frustration, silent-treatment, stonewalling, and dizzying word-salad-speak. I also chose to look away when he’d give a really good and thorough spanking.
My mother’s idea of coping was avoiding, not speaking up, and ignoring tough family moments and me.
Because I considered myself to be strong, I chose to speak up on her behalf, protect her, as well as focus on only the good things that happened in our family while suppressing all of the darkness that our family was centered around.
While I was so busy feeling the need to protect others, I didn’t feel psychologically or physically protected in my own household.
At the same time, I found myself trying to get away from the constant chaotic energy in my household by hiding out in my bedroom while writing copious journal entries trying to make sense of the scariness and secrets.
Despite requesting from my parents several times to see a family therapist, I was always met back with, “Why? We don’t believe in therapy. We’re fine. There’s no reason to go.”
I was clearly asking for support but was being denied the help I felt I needed.
The first time I ever saw a therapist was when I was eighteen. My college offered therapy as part of our tuition and I couldn’t wait to go. I’m not sure that I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about back then, but I think I was hoping the therapist would have a magic question that would unleash a series of answers regarding my deep feelings, sensitivities, and challenging upbringing.
Sadly, when both sessions with that college therapist resulted in him asking me to talk to a teddy bear and punch it, I never went back.
It wasn’t till I was in my mid-twenties when I saw my next therapist because I was concerned about a relationship I was in at the time. On occasion, I brought up my upbringing, and so that therapist administered Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a common technique used with PTSD patients and people who’ve experienced trauma. Unfortunately, it was not clearly explained why we were doing EMDR, and so the core problem wasn’t really addressed and I left work with that therapist with no diagnosis.
In 2018, after a series of ongoing events within my family, I chose estrangement. While I’d been working in the mental health industry for two decades, I had no idea how estrangement would wreak havoc on my emotional well-being. I truly was not well-prepared for taking such a devastating decision.
Immediately, I was plagued with a daily bombardment of terrifying childhood and adult memories I had completely forgotten. No matter what I did or how I coped, they painfully persisted.
Insomnia became my new “best friend” and I felt agitated, apathetic, and numb.
In waking life, intrusive and bizarre invasive images came to me from nowhere, and while trying to keep it altogether, I wondered if I was losing my mind and what would happen to me.
I always felt I knew myself well. And, I considered myself to be practical, pragmatic, and down-to-earth. Additionally, I’d never been scared to face any challenge head-on, but this seemed to be a beast that wouldn’t quit.
In life, I was a go-getter, went after my dreams, traveled the world, and had been working for myself for the past seventeen years.
In fact, I worked hard and diligently through yoga, breath-work, journaling, Reiki, coaching, therapy and so many other modalities to get to my truth. But, making this one choice to be estranged from my family—which I felt was the best and only option at that point to preserve my well-being—seemed to open up Pandora’s Box and no matter how many tools I had, it felt like nothing worked.
From the summer of 2018 till January 2020, I didn’t recognize myself.
I felt disengaged from life and from my soul.
I didn’t want to go outside, which was odd because I’m a huge nature-lover.
I lost interest in my favorite hobby and pastime of surfing. This felt so shocking—it felt so counter-intuitive. I had no reason to no longer want to surf but suddenly I felt so removed from it.
Life was blah, dull, and I felt completely disconnected.
Not being able to access the root-cause of what I thought might be an identity-crisis left me terror-stricken—especially being a hopeful and optimistic person.
One day, after constant communication with my husband over my family estrangementand resulting emotional chaos, my husband told me, “I don’t think I’m equipped to help you anymore. I think it’s time to see a therapist.”
He was right. While I tried to use my tools daily, I needed somebody highly trained to inform me of what I was actually going through and what to expect. I made an immediate appointment with a local psychologist and felt relieved that some answers might be around the corner.
As my husband and I waited in the doctor’s office for the therapist to call my name, I felt excited and curious.
The therapist conducted a full intake which left me feeling relieved and shocked—in all the years I’d worked with countless therapists, I’d never had a proper intake! The intake was comprehensive, and I was given the chance to talk about my childhood all the way up till present-day.
Once I completed the intake, the therapist said, “You have PTSD. You’ve experienced trauma and abuse. I want you to see a specialist.”
With just those few sentences, I felt my whole body relax. My shoulders lightened. My jaw was no longer stiff. I had so much more headspace and it was like I finally knew the truth. In that moment, I stopped buying into focusing only on all the good times of my childhood and finally faced openly the dysfunction that was there, too.
I’d worked so hard all my life to keep up the appearance and image of having a perfect family that without even realizing it, I was doing extreme damage to myself by not admitting what I’d been through and witnessed.
It’s been nearly six months since my diagnosis, and I can gratefully say that life has come back to my version of “normal” and fulfilling. I’m back on my surfboard and am joyful and curious about life again. The invasive images have stopped and I’m sleeping better.
Being diagnosed with PTSD didn’t feel like a stigma; it actually brought me back home to me. PTSD brought my soul back to life.
There are many myths surrounding the topic of PTSD that I feel are important to debunk.
Myth #1: PTSD only happens to war veterans.
Truth: Research shows that children and people who’ve never experienced combat can have PTSD. People can experience PTSD if they’ve been in an accident, experienced any form of abuse and dysfunction, or even through the course of grieving the death of a loved one.
Myth #2 PTSD is something that only happens to men.
Truth: About 10 percent of women will experience PTSD in their lifetime and women are twice as likely to develop PTSD to men. Between 3 and 15 percent of girls who’ve had a trauma develop PTSD and between 1-6 percent of boys who’ve experienced some form of trauma develop PTSD.
Myth #3 Your therapist or doctor will diagnose you straight away.
Truth: PTSD is commonly overlooked and often goes undetected. One of the reasons this happens is because a person might not experience the PTSD symptoms straight away; in fact, sometimes it isn’t until years later that an individual starts to experience symptoms related to a traumatic event. Additionally, therapists require that a patient experience all of the documented symptoms of PTSD or at least one the symptoms for one straight month.
In my case, it took me two decades, countless therapists, mental health professionals, coaches and healers before I was finally officially diagnosed with PTSD this year.
Myth #4: PTSD only happens due to recurring events.
Truth: One event can be enough to bring on PTSD.
Myth #5 You cannot function or live the life of your dreams if you have PTSD.
Truth: Sometimes undiagnosed PTSD is the very thing that is preventing you from moving forward on your life plans and goals because without you knowing it, the symptoms are preventing you from focus, clarity, and confidence. It is absolutely possible to live the life you desire even if you have PTSD.
Myth #6: You’re not normal and cannot have a fulfilling life if you have PTSD.
Truth: You are normal. You’re still whole and complete even if you have PTSD. And, it is possible that you can have an even more fulfilling, peaceful, and connected life once receiving such a diagnosis because you will learn how to manage and minimize symptoms while practicing being more mindful, still, and deeply engaged in your life.
Walking around defensively. Waiting for somebody to shout, attack, or hurt you. Walking around on eggshells and hyper-vigilance.
Hyper-arousal. Jumping and flinching at the sound of a door slamming, loud noises, or family or friends yelling and talking loudly.
Possibly angry when you hear another chew loudly, swallow or gulp, or even the smell of cigarettes or another substance may put you on edge and make you irritable.
Feeling claustrophobic or annoyed if somebody stands too close to you in the supermarket or on the street.
May not be able to tolerate crowds or a lot of people.
Ruminating, having obsessive thoughts or intrusive thoughts that scare you. Sudden invasive images while awake that are random, seem to make no sense and go against your core values
Brain fog—mixing up words like saying “yesterday” instead of tomorrow
Decreased interest in things that once truly mattered and were enjoyable to you
Inability to remember trauma or have blocked it
A flooding of difficult memories or instances throughout your waking day
Insomnia or constant disrupted sleep
Tips for Coping with PTSD
The tips below are a little “toolkit” I put together with my therapist, as well as extensive research I conducted. While I have found these tips have helped me with my PTSD, this is not a “one-size-fits-all” package. You may have to experiment a bit on what works best for you. For me, using a combination of the tips below helped a lot.
1. Guided meditation and guided visualization.
With PTSD, it’s important to give the brain a break, to calm down your adrenals and stop trauma and anxiety responses. Positive guided visualization helps reduce stress and has you visualize successful and positive scenarios while also having you focus on the breath.
2. Reiki, massage and acupuncture (if you don’t have a phobia with needles).
If touch triggers you, this may not be the coping method for you. For me, these modalities showed me I was safe to be touched and were very relaxing.
3. Stress-reducing foods.
Studies have shown that eating blueberries, dairy, non-processed cheese, green vegetables, almonds and drinking chamomile tea have a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms while brining on rather immediate calm.
4. Pet therapy.
Petting your cat, listening to their purrs for example, have shown some ways to calm the nerves and help soothe the PTSD symptoms.
5. Mantras and meditation.
Research shows that saying or chanting a mantra during meditation have been one of the most beneficial ways to reduce PTSD symptoms.
6. Practicing gentleness.
Consciously and intentionally eat, drink, talk, drive, shower, brush your teeth, and all other daily activities gently. When practicing gentleness, you respond versus react and are less prone to trauma and anxiety responses.
7. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
Studies show alcohol and caffeine trigger nightmares, invasive images, and rev up the central nervous system.
8. Listening to binaural beats.
The tones and beats of binaural beats have been shown to significantly help with better and deeper sleep, reduce anxiety, help boost confidence, and encourage relaxation.
My hope in sharing my personal story of having PTSD is that you will reframe your PTSD experience by seeing just how resilient and courageous you actually are. Instead of believing PTSD is a debilitating disorder, I hope you can view it as something that challenges you to find your truth and wakes you up to what matters most in your life so you can live the life of your dreams and purpose.
Laurie Santos is a Certified Co-Creative and Co-Active Life Coach of seventeen years. She’s also a Reiki Master, has a Master of Science in Justice and a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology. Since 2007, Laurie’s been an expat having lived in Africa, The Middle East, and Europe. You can sign up for her Soul Supplements newsletter at lifecoachlaurie.comor check out her weekly Soul Session at Instagram at Life Coach Laurie.Web | More Posts
A recent survey has shown that half of people who live in New Hampshire have experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Studies have shown that people who experience trauma early in their lives are more likely to have health problems later on down the road.
Ten percent of people who did not have a traumatic experience in childhood were in poor health. Seventeen percent of people who had a traumatic experience had poor health. Traumatic experiences include things such as witnessing domestic violence, abuse, neglect and having a relative with a substance abuse problem.
According to njtvonline.org, the survey showed that nearly half of people had at least one of those experiences. Women were more likely to have a traumatic experience. The survey showed that 53 percent of women, and 46 percent of men had a traumatic childhood experience. Additionally, 62 percent of the people who had four or more traumatic experiences were women.
The more traumatic experiences a person had, the more likely they were to have poor health. They were also more likely to use drugs and alcohol. Patricia Tilley is the deputy director of the State Division of Public Health Services. She stated that childhood trauma is a public health issue that needs to be addressed.
Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen are two Democratic senators in New Hampshire. They hope that they will be able to create policies that address this issue. Jeanne stated that we are not spending money where it really matters.
Maggie’s mother is a school teacher. She asked her mother why students still struggle in the classroom despite the fact that they are very intelligent. Maggie’s mother stated that every child needs to know that they have an adult in their corner.
Officials stated that the results of the study illustrate the importance of helping children and adults who have suffered trauma. Adults who have mental health problems are more likely to abuse drugs and have mental problems.