The most common psychological problem resulting from a trauma is posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Not everyone that experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but those who do often have difficulty distinguishing perceived threats from actual threats. They are overly sensitive to threatening stimuli and exhibit challenges identifying emotions and facial expressions. These responses are well documented and have been proven in numerous studies. However, until recently, understanding how race affects threat response in individuals with PTSD is less known. N. Fani of the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta wanted to get a clearer picture of how individuals with PTSD respond to threatening stimuli by race.
Fani led a study that looked at 39 individuals with PTSD and 25 individuals who had experienced trauma but did not develop PTSD. The majority of the participants were African-American (AA) women, and the remainder were Caucasian (C). The participants were assessed using the Traumatic Events Interview, the PTSD Symptom Scale, and the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. They were then presented pictures of AA and C faces demonstrating a range of emotions and were asked to report their perception of threat. The study revealed that the individuals with PTSD were much more likely to perceive threat than those without PTSD. Additionally, the most threatening faces to the AA participants were the C faces, regardless of whether or not they actually depicted threat.
The findings suggest that individuals have an attention bias toward faces that are different than their own. Because minority individuals tend to dwell in communities that are racially similar, they may view other races as different, and in those with PTSD, this difference could be overstated by a heightened sensitivity to threat. The bias demonstrated in the PTSD participants could negatively exacerbate their symptoms and perpetuate the fear and anxiety associated with PTSD. For the individuals without PTSD, the study revealed no racial bias toward threat, in either the AA or C participants or the AA or C pictures. Fani believes that understanding how race influences bias in individuals with PTSD is imperative for designing interventions. Fani said, “By elucidating the nature and direction of the associations between these processes in PTSD, future treatments can be manipulated to better target and correct these processes.”
Fani, N., Tone, E.B., Phifer, J., Norrholm, S.D., Bradley, B., Ressler, K. J., Kamkwalala, A., Jovanovic, T. Attention Bias Toward Threat Is Associated with Exaggerated Fear Expression and Impaired Extinction in PTSD. Psychological Medicine 42.3 (2012): 533-43. Print.
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