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Study: Love and Care Crucial for Trauma Recovery

New research from the University of Exeter highlights the importance of affection and emotional support following a psychologically traumatic experience.

The study found that individuals who are simply shown pictures of people receiving love and care are able to avoid negative responses when those pictures are followed by images of threatening language or facial expressions.

The researchers at the University of Exeter took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from 42 healthy subjects while they were exposed to the supportive images and the threatening ones. When the threatening pictures were preceded by images of care and affection, the researchers noticed reduced activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that monitors threats.

The positive images reduced responses to the threatening images even though they were shown very briefly. The study found that the subjects did not even need to be paying attention to the content of the positive pictures in order for them to reduce activation in the amygdala.

This reduced activation was most pronounced in the subjects with comparatively high levels of anxiety, who normally exhibit the highest levels of hypervigilance and amygdala activation in response to threat stimuli. This suggests that the protection afforded by reminders of care and affection will still occur even when individuals exist in a state of comparative hypervigilance and highly sensitive responses.

Individuals with emotional trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often have excessively negative emotional responses to negative triggers and struggle to soothe themselves and recover control over their emotions. This new research suggests that preparing the brain with positive social support can help individuals function more normally and calm themselves even when they are faced with threatening stimuli.

Research on Trauma Recovery

This research helps to explain and underline the fact that recovery from emotional trauma is much more successful when patients receive significant social support. This relationship has long been observed in patients dealing with the aftermath of psychological trauma, but this study provides evidence about the brain activity that explains this benefit.

People who suffer an emotionally traumatic experience often feel like withdrawing from their social circles and isolating themselves. However, this new study adds to the evidence that getting social support following trauma is an important part of a steady and thorough recovery.

Previous research has found that images or other reminders of affection and support can reduce the brain’s response to pain. However, this is the first study to show that care and affection can also have a protective effect on the brain’s response to negative stimuli.

Help for PTSD Patients

In addition to highlighting the importance of emotional support during trauma recovery, the University of Exeter researchers hope their data may also be helpful in treating the most severe response to trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder. Lead researcher Dr. Anke Karl and her team are currently working to see whether reminders of love and care can be used to help PTSD patients confront traumatic memories.

Many different events can result in psychological trauma, including natural disasters, human-made disasters or conflicts, major car accidents, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, some other form of assault such as mugging or even chronic illness. Events that happened repeatedly, happened in childhood, made you feel powerless or happened unexpectedly are particularly likely to result in psychological trauma.

The results of this study were published in November 2014 in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Posted on September 10th, 2015
Posted in PTSD

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