Despite all the advancements made in diagnosing and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there are still many misconceptions about this mental health issue. Common myths about PTSD show that it is not completely understood or accepted by everyone. This denial can lead to dangerous consequences if these misconceptions prevent an individual from seeking medical attention.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD usually develops after a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, sexual or physical assault, vehicle crash, witnessing a traumatic incident or the sudden loss of a close friend or relative. If you have PTSD, you probably have anxious and frightening memories or thoughts that can lead to being emotionally withdrawn. This condition first came to light because of its connection to war veterans. However, there is an increase in the number of people with PTSD who are victims of terrifying events that aren’t related to the military.
A recent report shows that in the United States, close to 8 percent of the population will have PTSD some time during their lives. A horrific experience can lead to feelings of horror, fear or helplessness — symptoms of PTSD. However, PTSD is not a lifelong condition. There are effective treatments that have helped war veterans, trauma survivors and those who have a history of mental health disorders, such as anxiety. Not every person who goes through traumatic event will experience PTSD, but most do.
Common Myths About PTSD
Like other mental health issues, there is a stigma that comes along with PTSD. Misunderstanding this disorder can lead to prejudice from others or being viewed as damaged or weak. In turn, this can lead to feelings of embarrassment and shame, causing you to not seek treatment or support, even though it is available. Learning and understanding the truth about this disorder can make a difference in your life if you are suffering from PTSD. Here are a few common myths about PTSD and the facts that debunk them.
Myth 1. PTSD Is a Sign of Mental Weakness
Just like other stigmas surrounding mental illness, if you have PTSD, uninformed people may think you are weak and should be able to handle it without treatment or support. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. PTSD is a human response to an uncommon experience, and the effects of it can be traced to a specific traumatic event.
If you are experiencing PTSD, it’s best not to compare yourself to others who have also gone through a similar horrific event. Everybody is different, and therefore, they will come to terms with their situation at varying times. That doesn’t mean you are a mentally weak person. The most common result after a traumatic event is resiliency and recovery, and there are several other factors that can influence whether you will develop this disorder and the severity of it:
- Type of trauma
- Severity of trauma (Did it happen by chance or were you targeted?)
- Number of traumas in your lifetime
- Duration of trauma (How long were you exposed to the situation?)
- Having an immediate support system available
PTSD may make you feel unstable and weak, but that’s because it is a mental condition. It is your brain and body reacting to something that happened to you, and it’s not caused by a weakness. In fact, surviving a major traumatic event is a sign of strength. You are stronger for seeking and accepting help and support. You are a survivor.
Myth 2. Only Military Personnel Suffer From PTSD
This is probably one of the most common misconceptions about PTSD — that it only affects military members and veterans. PTSD was once considered a condition combat veterans experienced after being involved in war situations. Soldiers originally were met with rejection by their peers and feared by society. Yet, one out of every 10 civilians or soldiers who spend time in a war zone will develop PTSD.
It was these war veterans who brought PTSD into the limelight. Hundreds of thousands of military men and women have seen combat. Many have been shot at, witnessed death up close and even watched their buddies get killed. These are types of situations that can cause PTSD.
Those diagnosed with PTSD were reportedly having a hard time readjusting to life at home especially after being deployed to a war-torn country. So while the misconception that military personnel and veterans are the only ones who suffer from PTSD is not accurate, it is true that a large number of them do. Almost 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were treated at Veterans Administration clinics and hospitals have been diagnosed with PTSD. That number is even closer to 50 percent for all veterans who saw combat.
However, in 1980, PTSD became a recognized disorder with definitive symptoms so it could be diagnosed reliably. Soon thereafter, PTSD was diagnosed in other individuals who weren’t in the military. Throughout recent history, there have been a number of traumatic events that left civilians and entire communities with symptoms of PTSD including:
- September 11th terrorist attacks (2001)
- Hurricane Katrina (2005)
- Haiti earthquake (2010)
- Newtown school shootings (2012)
- Paris terrorist attacks (2015)
This then begs the question, “Who is at risk for developing PTSD?” Of course, anyone who lives through a traumatic or terrifying event is susceptible, but there are other risk and resilience factors to consider, including:
- History of mental illness
- Dealing with extra stress after the traumatic event such as loss of a job or home, death of a loved one or pain and injury
- Lack of social support after the event
- Feeling helpless or fearful
Resilience factors that can reduce the risk of PTSD are:
- Responding and acting effectively despite feeling fearful or helpless
- Receiving support from family and friends
- Developing a coping strategy
- Seeking treatment after the horrific event
Myth 3. People With PTSD Are Dangerous or Crazy
The media in part is to thank for the misconception surrounding PTSD. Sensationalized news coverage and classic war movies paint distressed military members as “crazy war vets,” unable to function in society. This inaccurate depiction shows that PTSD is characterized by violence or psychosis, both of which are untrue. PTSD symptoms in war veterans and civilians stem from dealing with distressing memories and changes in mood that are the result of a traumatic experience.
However, while it may feel as if you are going crazy, it’s really the symptoms of the disorder that are disrupting your life. PTSD symptoms include feeling as if danger is lurking just around the corner, which can make you feel cut off from your family, friends and even your own feelings. Other symptoms that stand out are having difficulty concentrating and getting angered easily.
Feeling this way does not mean you are dangerous or insane. It’s just your body’s attempt at coping with an extremely stressful occurrence — it is trying to survive. When you have a traumatic experience, your body responds by preparing to take action. You may experience tunnel vision, begin to sweat or feel your muscles get tense.
If you have PTSD, it can feel like your body will always stay this way, expecting that danger will happen, and you’ll never feel safe again. This response is very reasonable considering what you have experienced, but it won’t be this way forever.
Myth 4. Those Who Suffer From PTSD Should Be Able to Get Over It
Just like most traumatic events in a person’s life, you just can’t tell someone to get over it. Would you tell someone to get over the death of their spouse or child? Likely not. Similarly, you can’t tell someone to do that with PTSD. Instead of getting over the symptoms, those suffering with this mental disorder can learn how to live with it by seeking treatment and support as needed.
A PTSD study shows that your memory lasts the longest and is the strongest when your emotions are heightened. This is why people remember some of the most poignant moments in their lives such as a wedding or graduation. This is also why they remember traumatic events. So when you tell someone to get over PTSD, you are in essence telling them to get over their memories and their bodies’ reactions to them.
However, with treatment, therapy or support, you can learn to handle yourself in situations that exacerbate your symptoms. Unfortunately, no matter how effective the treatment is, it will never replace the fact that the trauma happened in the first place. So, because the trauma can never be erased from your memory, you will never totally be symptom-free. However, the symptoms can be reduced to the point of no longer having them control your life. It’s just like a death in the family. You learn how to accept and cope with the situation instead of just getting over it.
Myth 5. PTSD Is Not Treatable
Like other mental illnesses, PTSD is not curable, but its symptoms can be treated effectively. Treatment can help you gain control over your life, feel better about yourself and help you learn to cope with the symptoms if they arise. There are many types of PTSD treatments available; you and your doctor can figure out what will work best for you. Treatments include:
Psychotherapy: Also known as talk therapy, this is a common treatment used for people suffering from PTSD. You can take part in individual or group therapy or a combination of the two. Group therapy will introduce you to others going through the same experiences. Some common variations of psychotherapy used are:
- Cognitive therapy: This will help you recognize how your negative or inaccurate ways of thinking are keeping you from perceiving normal situations. Cognitive therapy is typically coupled with exposure therapy.
- Exposure therapy: This type of behavioral therapy can help you face what is frightening you so you can handle it effectively. One approach to this type of therapy is using a “virtual reality” treatment program that will put you in the setting in which you first experienced your traumatic event.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This type of therapy combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements that should help you process the horrific memories and alter how you react to their memories.
Medication: Commonly prescribed to use along with psychotherapy, these medications may help improve PTSD symptoms:
- Antidepressants: These can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression that are often seen in individuals with PTSD. Besides helping with concentration, they can also help your sleep.
- Prazosin: For people with recurrent nightmares and insomnia, this type of medication may help reduce PTSD symptoms.
- Anti-anxiety medications: These are used to relieve the symptoms of stress and anxiety brought on by PTSD. Because they can lead to drug abuse or addiction, they are normally only taken for a short period of time.
Now that you know PTSD is treatable, you also need to understand that recovery won’t come overnight. Recovery comes in the following five stages:
- Emergency: Also commonly known as the outcry stage, your response during this time is intense, and your anxiety is extremely high. This is where your “fight or flight” response kicks into gear for survival. Individuals reach this stage either during the traumatic experience or when they are faced with one or more of their triggers. This stage lasts as long as you believe you are in danger, and your feelings of hopelessness, intense fear and helplessness are still surging through your body.
- Numbing: During this stage, your denial of PTSD needs to be addressed. You will deny any emotions that you are struggling with, and this is just your mind’s way of trying to eliminate your high levels of anxiety and stress. Without treatment, you may find you cannot move past this stage.
- Intrusive/Repetitive: Even though you are trying to deny your feelings during this stage, you are probably experiencing flashbacks, increased anxiety and nightmares. This is the most destructive stage of PTSD recovery, but at the same time, this is the time when you will most likely confront the PTSD feelings controlling your life.
- Transition: This is where recovery really starts to happen. You will move into a new level of understanding and acceptance of what happened to you and how it affected your life. You can finally start healing and having a more positive outlook on life.
- Integration: During this stage, you actually start working through your PTSD recovery program. You can take the coping skills you’ve learned and integrate them into your daily life. There is no time frame allotted to reach this stage, and you must remember that there may be times when you regress a little bit as you struggle with a given situation.
PTSD and Drug Addiction Go Together
PTSD and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand. Many people with PTSD turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to gain some control in their lives or to simply forget the pain and suffering they are dealing with. This type of self-medication has led to more than 30 percent of PTSD sufferers developing a drug addiction and more than 50 percent developing an alcohol dependency. Many times, endorphin withdrawal plays a role in using drugs or alcohol to control PTSD.
If you were to experience a harrowing event, your brain will produce endorphins as a means of coping with the moment. Afterward, your body will go through an endorphin withdrawal, which for many feels the same as going through alcohol or drug withdrawal. That is why some people turn to substances to replace those feelings; however, those feelings are very short-lived when using drugs or alcohol.
Known as a co-occurring disorder, PTSD and drug or alcohol addiction can be difficult to treat. The most severe condition should be treated first, but for those who have PTSD and a substance abuse problem, the addiction is often what prompts an intervention in the first place. The PTSD is the core issue and it can be difficult to beat the addiction if the PTSD goes untreated.
Debunking or understanding the misconceptions surrounding PTSD begins with learning and understanding the symptoms of the disorder. It’s normal to have some of these symptoms after a traumatic event, but when they last for more than a few weeks and don’t show any signs of improving, you could be suffering from PTSD. The symptoms include:
- Hyper-arousal symptoms: These symptoms are constant and are usually not triggered by things or events. You may feel angry and easily stressed, be easily startled or feel edgy, and you might have difficulty sleeping, concentrating or eating.
- Re-experiencing symptoms: Also known as flashbacks, people with these symptoms relive the trauma over and over through bad dreams and frightening thoughts. A racing heart and sweating are also symptoms that can cause problems in your everyday life and can overtake your thoughts and feelings.
- Avoidance symptoms: People, places or things that remind you of the traumatic event can trigger these symptoms. They can cause you to change your personal routine and stay away from reminders of the experience. You may also have strong feelings of worry, depression and guilt.
While the causes of PTSD vary, research has shown that genes may also play a role in an individual’s fear memories. If it is understood how they are created, doctors may be able to find new kinds of interventions or treatments that can help reduce PTSD symptoms. Knowing how specific areas of the brain deal with stress and fear is another way researchers are trying to better understand PTSD symptoms.
Overcoming the Stigma Associated With PTSD
Anyone, including members of the military and war veterans, who experience a traumatic event can develop PTSD. Some people may be able to cope with it while others can’t, but that doesn’t make a person weak, dangerous or crazy. While PTSD cannot be cured, its effects can be reduced with treatment. You can learn to understand and handle the symptoms. Unfortunately, too many misunderstandings still surround this mental illness, but attention is needed in diagnosing and treating these individuals.
If you are in a situation where PTSD is taking over your life and leading to drug or alcohol addiction, contact the professionals at 12 Keys Rehab. We have a full-featured, state-of-the-art facility and board-certified professionals who will make your stay comfortable and allow you to be in an atmosphere where you can recover and heal from your addiction and traumatic experience. If you are in crisis, call us today.