Reactions to Fearful Faces May Predict which Soldiers Get Post-Traumatic Stress

One way of predicting which soldiers will experience post-traumatic stress syndrome may be by tracking their reactions to fear, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Christopher Beevers and his colleagues in the Department of Psychology tracked the eye movements of 139 soldiers who were to be deployed in the Middle East wars as they looked at pictures of faces with sad, fearful, happy, or neutral expressions. Once the soldiers went into the combat area, they kept diaries for 30 days, which the researchers studied. Those soldiers who had looked at the pictures of fearful people for longer times had fewer risk factors for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Dr. Beevers said that he hoped to find new ways of discovering which soldiers are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“Prevention programs that help soldiers better cope with their war zone experiences and the emotions that result from them might be particularly beneficial for those who are susceptible to anxiety disorders or depression,” he said.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome is prevalent among veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts, more so than in other wars, but this may be partly due to testing every returning soldier for the syndrome. Some studies indicate that 12% of those who served in Iraq and 6% of those coming back from Afghanistan develop the disorder.

This study appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry.