Emotional reaction to a traumatic event

What if you saw a gigantic wave take away your safe harbor?

Thursday, 10 March, 2016

Losing a close family member, seeing a dead body, being separated from your loved ones, witnessing gigantic waves: these are all traumatic events no one wants to be exposed to. Individuals who witnessed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake faced at least one, and often more, of these events. Going through such a trauma can result in onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger, or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD.

People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger. PTSD is characterized by a number of symptoms, one of which is numbing of emotions. This symptom is characterized by a loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities, feeling detached from others, and an inability to express a full range of emotions.

What about young children?

PTSD comes at all ages. Children with PTSD often develop emotional numbing because it helps them to cope with the continuous stress they are experiencing. Emotional numbing is usually evaluated through self-reported questionnaires, but it is difficult to ascertain the degree in young children partially due to limitations in language. 

Previous studies have suggested that facial emotional reactivity could be a useful index to measure the degree of emotional numbing. To investigate this hypothesis, researchers of the National Research Institute for Child Health and Development in Tokyo used FaceReader to analyze the faces of children exposed to the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Exposed to the Great East Japan Earthquake

The pilot study Fujiwara et al. conducted in 2013, 3 years after the earthquake, was part of a larger study which investigated the impact of the earthquake on young children. In this study 60 children (4 to 6 years old at the time of the earthquake) participated. They measured the severity of the post-traumatic stress disorder, using the Japanese version of the “Parent’s Report of the Child’s Reaction to Stress” scale, as well as the proportion of each facial expression (happy, sad, angry, surprised, scared, disgusted, and neutral) while the children watched a ‘baseline’ (neutral) and a ‘comedy’ (funny) video clip.

The ‘baseline’ video clip contained images of the sky, clouds, mountains, waterfalls and fields of flowers. The ‘comedy’ video clip was an episode of the TV comedy Mr. Bean. The facial expressions in reaction to the video clips were automatically measured using FaceReader software. To determine whether Japanese children considered Mr. Bean to be funny, self-reported ratings of amusement were assessed.

Results of the study

Three facial expressions - sad, happy and neutral - were most displayed during the study. Children with higher PTSD symptom scores showed a greater amount of neutral facial expressions. Specifically, PTSD symptom scores were associated with the amount of neutral facial expressions observed during the ‘comedy’ video. Remarkably, PTSD symptom scores were inversely correlated with the extent of sad facial expression, suggesting that children who showed higher PTSD symptom scores had less sad facial expressiveness. 

The researchers concluded that it is more likely you will find a greater restriction in affective reaction and expression to emotional stimuli in children with higher PTSD symptom scores. The results of this pilot study suggests that facial emotional reactivity, measured using facial expression recognition software, has the potential to index emotional numbing in young children.


FaceReader methodology white paper

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To read more on this study, find the original results here:

Fuijwara, T., Mizuki, R., Miki T. & Chemtob, C. (2015). Association between facial expression and PTSD symptoms among young children exposed to the Great East Japan Earthquake: a pilot study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, article 1534.