New research explores subconscious effects of trauma triggers

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after a person experiences a traumatic event. Symptoms of PTSD can be debilitating and are often brought on by trauma triggers, or experiences in daily life that cause an individual to recall or re-live a traumatic memory.

Current therapies for trauma-related disorders are designed to treat people who respond to trauma triggers on a conscious level. But what if an individual isn’t aware of his or her trauma triggers? And how does the body respond when trauma triggers or threats are perceived on a subconscious level?

New research led by Dr. Daniela Rabellino, a postdoctoral fellow working alongside Dr. Ruth Lanius, Associate Clinical Scientist at Homewood Research Institute, has uncovered some answers to these important questions. And the findings may have significant implications for the field of trauma treatment.

Dr. Rabellino’s study, Neural and Autonomic Correlates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder During Processing of Trauma-Related Stimuli, explores the effects of trauma triggers that are presented to people with PTSD for only a few milliseconds and are thus perceived below the threshold of conscious awareness.

The subconscious processing of trauma triggers had a striking effect on both heart rate – an important measure of emotion regulation – and on the activation of midbrain structures that have been proposed to form the body’s innate “alarm system”. In other words, individuals react reflexively to trauma triggers, even when they are not consciously aware of those triggers.
Dr. Rabellino’s study has important implications for the future of trauma treatment; specifically, treatment must incorporate interventions that directly address the effects of trauma triggers that are not consciously perceived.

Body-oriented interventions, such as mindfulness practices and neurofeedback training – which can target the subconscious processing of trauma – are now being explored as adjunctive treatments for PTSD and other trauma-related disorders.

Read Dr Rabellinos Publication

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