PTSD and Eye Contact

I remember vividly the first time it was brought to my attention that I didn't make eye contact.  A well-meaning foster mother told me after dinner one night that I seemed nervous and never looked anyone in the eyes.  She correctly guessed that this was due to my upbringing and urged me to try making eye contact with her.  "You can't go through life not looking at people," she said.  "They'll think you can't be trusted."

I agreed with this and yet when I attempted to look her in the eyes, I got extremely uncomfortable.  I couldn't do it.  I nearly started crying after half a minute of this.  I didn't understand what was wrong with me, I only knew that I felt as though I were naked and someone was pointing a gun at my forehead.  After years of frustration I not only learned why I have problems with eye contact, but what to do about it, and how to fake "trustworthiness" as it were. 


Caregivers and professionals are taught that children avoiding eye contact is a sign of trauma as early as 1 year old.  Think about it...eye contact is one of the first things humans learn, long before walking and talking.  It's one of the oldest and most subconscious forms of communication.  It's also one of the best--we humans can read faces amazingly well.  Children who deal with abuse are taught that avoiding eye contact gives them a better chance at avoiding attacks by their abuser.

After I learned this I thought about it.  Had I knowingly, ever, averted my eyes?  Not really.  It wasn't as though my parents said "stop looking at me" when they were screaming at me or hitting me. However, as I got older and started fighting back, what I do remember was forcing myself to maintain eye contact, with both parents but my dad in particular.  When I stared back at him during a fight, it was immediately viewed as a challenge, by both of us.  He knew what I meant when I stared in his face and oftentimes his berserk behavior would escalate seconds after I made eye contact.  I was always aware at the time that I was "making it worse on myself" by doing this, but I was so angry I didn't care.  I wanted to stand up to him.  And I didn't even have to do anything, just simply meet his eyes. 

So, while I as a child didn't connect the dots that avoiding eye contact=avoiding provocation, I certainly had learned, as a teenager, that eye contact=provocation.  After I left home I simply kept up the same habits and only stared at people once it became clear that their motive was to fight and I was going to be attacked and stand up for myself.

Haha....28 years and going strong with my side-eye. 


Here is an immensely informative and thorough study I'm going to quote for this entry--since the whole thing reads worse than Tolkien while sober, (Oxford, amirite heh) I will break down the bones of the study.  Essentially, while eye contact in "normal" individuals starts a "processing" mechanism in the brain, in subjects with childhood-trauma-related PTSD, the mechanism that is activated is the "alarm" system.  Yup.  That's what I experienced when my foster mom told me to stare at her in the eyes.  That's why I felt like a gun was put to my head.  I was transitioning into hypervigilance, waiting for the attack.

Eye contact obviously shows us whether the person in front of us is happy, sad, and so on.  Like everything we do it is an evolutionary tactic to determine threat or non-threat.  But humans do so much more with visual processing, and can pull a lot of data from a few seconds look at another face.   However, the study notes that in their PTSD patients, discerning "threat" from "non-threat" happened less quickly, if at all, during eye contact. What's worse, even "positive" feedback (smiling, soothing looks, non-aggressive facial expressions) are not interpreted correctly.  Even when someone is trying to look at me reassuringly, my response is still to withdraw.  I had a coworker do this once; she didn't understand the damage it did and took me by the shoulders and said "look at me" very lovingly, but when I forced myself to stare without dissociating, my heart rate went through the roof and I started panicking immediately.


So how does someone with such an aversion to such a common communication tool adapt? I can only speak for myself since I have no clue what others with PTSD do in this circumstance (though I'd love to hear your experience if you have any.)  I've gotten so good at hiding my distaste for eye contact that I would say most people would never consider me untrustworthy or 'off'.  If there is a distinction, it would probably be that I'm "shy" instead of nervous or jumpy or weird.

-Not Setting a Standard
I think with close friends I set the standard that I don't make eye contact. I don't mention it, I just don't do it if I'm comfortable with someone.  The only time this ever backfires might be if the person is attempting to comfort me, when I just come clean and say I don't like eye contact--problem solved.  In situations where I am 100% present, like a therapy session, or an intense talk with a friend, I will not meet the other person's eyes at all.  This is what feels natural to me.  I am thankful for places like car rides or video game nights, or dinners where it is acceptable to be looking away a lot of the time.

-Selecting When To Make Eye Contact
But when I do need to make eye contact?  First I have to discern if the situation calls for it.  Job interviews are the first thing that come to mind, but also certain patients require eye contact.  I had an old supervisor who was very aggressive and animated, jumping around and yelling and giving orders--if I wanted him to take me seriously I had to prepare for a lot of eye contact.  Luckily I enjoyed his aggressiveness and always accepted those challenges with less hesitation than other people.  Meetings are another example of a bad time to not ever look at another person.

So, I get really good at learning what, and who, requires that I make eye contact.   The second step is dissociation.  I have already talked in length about this on this entry, but as other trauma survivors will relate, it simply means to step outside.  I can, on command, blank out of myself and become "stupid".  It's like another person takes over and I, Alex, watch as this controller sits in my body and moves my eyes toward the people I need to look at.  I fade in and out, sometimes more aware than others, and if I find myself becoming "too aware" of where I'm at, I step back.

Some people are "inexperienced" at dissociating and stare at the wall and can't function, and this scares them into thinking they're brain-dead.  Others like me who have done it for years, can talk and walk and interact just fine while being "not there."  Inwardly I feel very dumb, it's almost like being drunk, but if you can imagine what it's like to be drunk and fake your way through a job interview, you have what it's like to dissociate and function at the same time.

-Other Tricks
If I absolutely can't dissociate the way I need to, which is rare but does happen, I have a few tricks.  Firstly, I only maintain eye contact when listening.  People expect you to look at them when listening.  When I'm speaking, I have a bit more ability to move my hands and eyes and still seem like a genuine person.  While listening, I will either count (5 seconds looking, then look away) or simply stare at the different parts of a person's face for a few seconds at a time.  When someone is farther than a few feet away they can't discern if you're staring at their nose or mouth instead of their eyes (but don't do this when up close, unless you want to send the message you're thinking of kissing them...haha!)  If I find myself looking away, I pull the demure female/shy card and bat my eyelashes and rub my neck.  This sends "I'm shy and girly" not "I'm a tweaker who can't look at you because I'm lying."

And that's a bit about that!  I'm happy to hear any thoughts.  I always hope people like to read my long-winded ramblings.  Writing about PTSD is one of the only positive aspects it has on my life; I find the disorder to be fascinating scientifically and to keep myself from eating toilet paper or some other strange coping mechanism, I write it all out.

And always, please let me know if you have questions; I'll answer the best I can!

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