Trauma Myths. Separating Fact from Fiction.
PTSD is often misunderstood because PTSD survivors typically resist telling their friends or loved ones about their diagnosis because they are afraid they will be viewed as dangerous or unstable. PTSD survivors may resist treatment because they believe the best way to fight PTSD is to remain “mentally strong.”
PTSD myths deter many PTSD survivors from seeking professional help. Let's explore these myths in more detail.
Myth #1: PTSD Is Combat Fatigue
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that affects people who've been through a significant trauma. Troops in World War I experienced "shell shock" and "combat fatigue." The American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to their "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" following the Vietnam war, prodded by the widespread reports that many exhibited symptoms of PTSD.
The perception of the disorder has historically been centered on soldiers, but anyone can develop PTSD.
- Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD as men.
- Combat, child abuse, a physical assault, or a car crash can cause PTSD to develop.
- About 7 percent of the US population has PTSD some point in their lives, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Myth #2: PTSD Is Imagined
PTSD is a serious and real mental disorder that causes very real symptoms. Decades of research has proven that traumatic events change how the brain functions. PTSD leads to measurable changes in the both brain and body following trauma.
Three areas of the brain are different in patients with PTSD: the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the medial prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is one of the centres of emotions and people with PTSD react with strong emotions to reminders of their trauma. PTSD flashbacks are theorized to result from the failure of the brain to control reactions to trauma-related stress.
The main symptoms associated with PTSD include:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Trouble concentrating
- Avoiding thoughts, feelings, locations and people associated with the traumatic event
- Flashbacks, or the sensation that the event is happening again
- Inability to enjoy old hobbies
Myth #3: PTSD Develops Immediately After the Trauma is Experience
Symptoms of PTSD show up in the first few months after a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms surface years later. A small portion of people who go through trauma develop PTSD. Many people with PTSD re-experience their traumas through nightmares, flashbacks, or frightened or angry thoughts. They might make a concerted effort to avoid anything that might trigger those recurring feelings of trauma. People with PTSD might feel alienated or lose interest in things they enjoyed before they were traumatized. They might become more aggressive, self-destructive, or hypervigilant. PTSD is diagnosed when multiple symptoms have lasted for more than a month.
Myth #4: PTSD Causes Violent Outbursts
The majority of people with PTSD aren't dangerous. Most people with PTSD have never acted violently. There's a wide variation of violence risk factors, like alcohol abuse, drug use, and other psychiatric disorders. These risk factors play into the relationship between PTSD and violence.
Myth #5: PTSD Happens to Weak People
There are many factors that play into whether a person develops PTSD after trauma. A person's risk of developing PTSD depends on risk factors and resilience factors.
- Having a history of mental illness, for example, puts people at greater risk to develop PTSD.
- People with little to no support, such as those who don't tell anyone about what happened to them, are more likely to develop PTSD.
Examples of resiliency factors are:
- Seeking support from friends or family after trauma reduces the chances of developing PTSD.
- Learning how to cope in a healthy way such as joining a support group can inoculate a person from PTSD.
Myth #7: PTSD Can’t Be Effectively Treated
PTSD is treatable, even if it can’t be completely eliminated in everyone. PTSD is frequently treated with medications, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, and other approaches. Several forms of PTSD treatment have proven effective, including talk therapy, exposure therapy, and behavioral therapy.
There's evidence that meditation can help individuals living through the debilitating symptoms of PTSD. The FDA has approved two medications to treat PTSD: sertraline and paroxetine (Zoloft and Paxil). They're both antidepressants and can help control emotional symptoms of PTSD like sadness, anger, and anxiety.
Myth #8: PTSD Symptoms Disappear Once the Person Recovers from Trauma
Symptoms of PTSD can come and go and vary in intensity over time. Individuals with PTSD cannot control how they re-experience trauma flashbacks. Even after many years, their PTSD symptoms can reappear suddenly and without warning. PTSD survivors cannot control when they will internally re-experience the memory of their trauma. Survivors may experience the same emotions or even physical sensations that they went through during their original trauma.
Myth #9: Everyone Has Some Form of PTSD Because Trauma is Part of Life
Certainly, most people will go through some sort of trauma in their lives. It's common to experience trauma but relatively rare to develop PTSD. However, people who experience trauma but don't develop PTSD might still experience one or more symptoms of PTSD. The American Psychological Association has a strict definition of what qualifies as PTSD. To be diagnosed with the PTSD, a person must have a combination of symptoms that last for over a month. It’s common to experience a trauma but it's relatively rare to develop PTSD.
- About 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one trauma in their lives.
- A smaller percentage of people go on to develop PTSD.
- Roughly 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men develop PTSD at some point.
Myth #9: PTSD Does Not Require Medical Attention
Trauma can be physically damaging. You don't have to be physically hurt or injured to develop PTSD. Many disaster workers develop PTSD even though they weren't physically hurt in the disaster.
PTSD isn't something people can always heal from on their own. It often takes time, support, and directed treatment. Seeking medical or psychiatric attention can help people with PTSD regain control over their lives.
Even without a physical damage, PTSD is a warning sign that the person requires medical or psychiatric attention. Many PTSD survivors find their lives disrupted by symptoms such as panic attacks, severe anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and sleeplessness.
PTSD myths mislead PTSD survivors and can discourage them from reaching out for the help they need to recover. Debunking these myths is an important way we can support PTSD survivors with their recovery.