Myths of PTSD
Myth 1: Everyone who goes through trauma develops PTSD
Trauma is an unfortunatly common experience and does not always lead to PTSD. According to the National Comorbidity Study (1995), 74.4% of adults age 15-54 reported at least one lifetime experience of trauma. This differs rather dramatically from the statistics in the DSM 5, which suggests only about 8.7% of adults will ever meet the criteria for PTSD in their lifetime.
The experience of PTSD like symptoms is common in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, however, after a short time these symptoms typically resolve. It is only if they persist and interfere with social or emotional functioning does someone qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD. Protective factors that make PTSD less likely to develop after a trauma are having no history of previous trauma, having a good support system, having no prior mental health diagnoses, and having access to more resources (higher SES).
Myth 2: PTSD only develops immediately after a trauma
PTSD typically develops in the first 3 months following a trauma; however, there may be a delay of months to years before criteria for a full diagnosis are met. This can be the result of dissociative processes I which the memory of all or part of a trauma are forgotten (i.e. dissociated).
Myth 3: PTSD only happens to soldiers
The highest rates of PTSD occur among survivors of rape, military combat and those held in captivity. That being said, many factors put someone at risk of developing PTSD. General risk factors include previous mental health diagnoses, previous trauma or childhood adversity, lack of social support, severity of the trauma, perceived threat to life, and the trauma being perpetrated by a caretaker. For those in the military, the chances of PTSD increase with being a perpetrator, witnessing atrocities, or killing an enemy.
Myth 4: PTSD can only develop if a trauma was life threatening
The chances of developing PTSD are certainly higher if the trauma is life threatening, however this is neither necessary or sufficient to develop PTSD. In fact, witnessing the abuse or assault of another person is can more disturbing and psychologically impactful than if the person themselves is harmed. And PTSD can often develop in those who work as first responders, such as police, EMTs or firefighters due to their repeated exposure to the aftermath of trauma. We call this vicarious traumatization.
Myth 5: Those who develop PTSD are weak
PTSD can happen to anyone, no matter how apparently strong. There are many factors other than strength that affects whether or not someone develops PTSD. These are factors that are outside of the individual’s control and include genetic factors, aspects of the trauma (how intense, how prolonged, and how frequent) and the reaction of their support system. Admitting that they need help actually takes tremendous strength of character and should be applauded.
Myth 6: Those with PTSD are dangerous
This stereotype usually involves a veteran who doesn’t realize that he is no longer at war and lashes out violently at his family. But this stereotype is not actually supported by the research. An increase in anger and irritability are symptoms of PTSD and when an individual abuses substances in an effort to self-medicate, this may lead to a higher likelihood of violence. However, this is true of all individuals, even those without PTSD.
Myth 7: PTSD is untreatable
This is patently untrue. Currently there are no known medications that specifically treat PTSD. Although medications can be used to manage some of the emotional dysregulation and nightmares.
Therapy is the treatment of choice for PTSD. EMDR and Prolonged Exposure are two of the most common forms of trauma treatment. In addition, there is a growing recognition that treatment modalities or adjuncts that address the physical body are important aspects of recovery (e.g. trauma informed yoga, Somatic Experiencing Therapy, Hakomi).