Eye-contact for most people is a normal part of everyday life; something which is not given conscious thought, something which usually elicits connection between people. However, for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eye-contact can mark the beginning of a destructive neurological and emotional process.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an often severe and debilitating mental illness triggered by a traumatic life event (eg. witnessing death, having a near death experience, being violently assaulted or sexually abused). Symptoms include; intrusive and disturbing flashbacks (and thoughts), nightmares, anxiety, trouble sleeping, suicidal ideation, dramatically increased and sensitive fear responses, having an abnormally increased resting heart and breathing rate.
People with PTSD often avoid and have difficulty with establishing and maintaining eye contact with people. I, the author of this blog, have been diagnosed with PTSD and have often been accused of being rude or uninterested, or showing a lack of respect when, instead of holding eye contact when talking with someone, I look at the ground or into the distance or notice my eyes are darting around the room at a million miles an hour looking at everything in the space apart from the other person’s eyes. But I can tell you now that those of us with PTSD are not rude or uninterested or disrespectful. Why believe me? Well, now I can prove it with hard biological evidence. Yay for science!
A study was undertaken last year (2014) which measured functional brain activity during direct eye contact. This was measured through neuroimaging. Women with PTSD were compared to women without the mental illness. Both groups were shown several manipulations of faces and eyes. The way the faces were positioned, the emotion they were exhibiting and whether they were holding a direct gaze or not, were all manipulated.
A clear difference was found between the brains in both groups of participants. In fact, several areas of the human brain reacted far differently in the PTSD brains, compared to the ‘healthy’ brains. For the brains with PTSD, the study showed that during (perceived) direct eye-contact there was an increased activation of brain regions involved in emotion processing. This was specifically associated with the fast subcortical pathway. One of the emotion regulation areas of the brain shown to be activated by eye-contact is called the Amygdala. The Amygdala is the fear centre of the brain. It deals with switching on our ‘fight or flight’ responses in an emergency situation, which also directly relates to the arousal of our sympathetic nervous system.
In short, this study concluded that PTSD brains perceive direct eye-contact as a threat which begins a neurological and emotional fear response, causing people with PTSD to avoid eye-contact. For people without PTSD, direct eye contact elicits the opposite; positive emotional connection.
So next time someone avoids eye contact with you, please remember there may be a heck of lot more happening behind their eyes than you think.