26 Sep Myth Busters: PTSD
Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych
Despite increasing awareness of PTSD, misconceptions still abound about the disorder. These myths can lead to stigma and prejudice against those experiencing the disorder, prevent people from seeking help, and contribute to shame and isolation. So, I’m going to tackle the myths I believe to be most common and most damaging.
Myth: PTSD is just a fear reaction
Fact: It is more complex than this. PTSD does involve a dysregulated fear response, which makes sense given that trauma threatens our sense of safety. However, it is more multifaceted than this. It often involves guilt, shame, existential stress, and moral injury, and it impacts every domain of functioning: emotional, cognitive, social, occupational, relational, and spiritual.
Myth: People with PTSD need to talk about what happened
Fact: It is often assumed that the way to get past something is to talk about it with a caring person. And this is sometimes true, although much more complex than TV and movies would have you believe. However, things are a little trickier when it comes to PTSD. Re-immersing ourselves in traumatic events can actually make things worse by embedding them further in the brain, so it is important to be careful about when and how to talk about what happened. Trust your instincts about whether to share the details of traumatic events and be sure to work with health professionals who know how to approach trauma processing in a helpful way – at the right time and in the right way.
Myth: PTSD is permanent
Fact: There is no PTSD ‘cure’, so to speak. However, this does not mean that people with PTSD are doomed to suffer from PTSD symptoms forever. I prefer to speak about PTSD as a psychological injury, rather than a disorder, because I believe it reflects the fact that PTSD is not some sort of inherent personality flaw but a reasonable reaction to a horrific situation, and one that can be healed. Symptoms can be improved or can even go away entirely, and people can go on to lead fulfilling lives, especially if specialized treatment is received early on. In fact, more recent research has focused on the idea of post-traumatic growth, which involves the experience of positive change as a result of adversity.
Myth: People with PTSD are dangerous
Fact: This one is a bit confusing, so stick with me. A diagnosis of PTSD is not, in itself, associated with an increased risk of violence. The prevalence of violence in those with PTSD is no higher than for those with anxiety or depressive disorders. The real risk factors are substance misuse and comorbid mental health conditions (ie. Those that occur with PTSD). What does this mean? That violent behaviour is more about the risk and protective factors in a person’s life than it is about the experience of PTSD itself.
Myth: Only combat veterans get PTSD
Fact: Combat veterans have become the face of PTSD. This makes some sense, given that much of the research on PTSD started as a result of ‘shell shock’ after WWI, and we have veterans to thank for the progress in research. However, this is not a complete picture. The truth is that anyone can experience PTSD. The experience of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or living in a poverty stricken areas can all lead to PTSD. It is less about the objective facts of the event(s) and more about the person’s subjective experience of the event(s). Experiences that make us feel extremely threatened or helpless can occur in many facets of life beyond military experience. This does not mean that everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but it means that trauma can happen to anyone.
Myth: PTSD affects mostly men
Fact: Actually, research suggests that women are about two to three times as likely to experience PTSD than men. This is due both to the types of trauma women tend to experience and to the prevalence of pre-existing mental health conditions in women. The reason for this myth may be related to the fact that PTSD presents differently in men than in women on a broad scale, with men showing more obvious externalizing symptoms. Of course, these are generalizations that do not reflect individual differences across the gender spectrum.
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Norman, S., Elbogen, E. B., & Schnurr, P. P. (n.d.). Research findings on PTSD and violence. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/research_on_ptsd_and_violence.asp
Olff, M. (2017). Sex and gender difference in post-traumatic stress disorder: An update. European Journal of Traumatology, 8(4), doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1351204