Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Separating Myths From Facts
There are many misconceptions about living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Contrary to what many people believe, this condition is not restricted to military veterans. Anyone can develop PTSD after traumatic experiences. And having PTSD does not make you weak—it is a psychiatric and neurological condition. Another myth is that there is no treatment for PTSD. The truth is that this often debilitating condition can be successfully managed in all types of patients. Trauma-focused therapies are effective, and many people treated end up losing their diagnosis.
There are a lot of myths circulating about living with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a serious mental illness, but it is treatable and manageable. If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event, you are at risk of developing PTSD. Understand the PTSD facts and myths so that you can better help yourself or a family member recognize the signs and get help if needed. PTSD does not have to be a lifelong struggle. Treatment is available and effective.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition that is caused by traumatic experiences. PTSD is characterized by intrusive memories, negative and destructive patterns in thoughts and mood, avoidance behaviors, and troubling emotional and physical reactions.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop this condition, and trauma is subjective. Some of the more common types of trauma that cause PTSD include physical abuse in childhood, sexual abuse or assault, life-threatening accidents or violence, and combat service in the military.
Living with post-traumatic stress disorder can be debilitating. Complications may include other mental illnesses, like depression, substance use, difficulties in relationships, being unable to work, and even suicidal thoughts and actions. PTSD is not hopeless. With the right treatment those struggling with it can manage symptoms and live a normal life again after safely processing the trauma.
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PTSD Myths and Facts
This is a complex mental illness, and there are several mistruths and misunderstandings about what it is and what it means to live with it. If you have a loved one who may be struggling with PTSD, or you wonder if you may have the symptoms, it helps to know more about what is truth and what is a myth.
- Myth: All Combat Veterans Have PTSD. Serving in the military and seeing active duty in combat does not mean you will necessarily develop PTSD. It is a big risk factor, but plenty of people serve and do not come home with PTSD. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of the men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will have PTSD. This is far from all service members, but it is a higher rate (7 to 8 percent) than in the general population.
- Fact: PTSD Can Affect Anyone. Not only do not all veterans have PTSD, but it is also a common misconception that only veterans struggle with this condition. Anyone who has experienced trauma can develop PTSD at any age. And what constitutes a traumatic experience is subjective. Someone may have PTSD as a result of being assaulted, while another may develop the condition after hearing about how a loved one died violently and unexpectedly. There is no way to know who will develop PTSD after trauma, but there are certain risk factors. They include a personal history of mental illness or substance use, having poor social support after trauma, having experienced trauma during childhood, and having extra stressors.
- Myth: Having PTSD Means You’re Not Tough Enough to Deal with a Bad Experience. People who go through trauma and do not develop PTSD probably have certain advantages, like a strong family support system, experience with healthy coping mechanisms, a low-stress life, or no prior or existing mental illnesses. Responding to trauma with PTSD does not make a person weak. It means that trauma has had a profound impact on their brain and that they were not as well-equipped to deal with it as other people. There is evidence that traumatic experience actually causes changes in the structure and chemistry of the brain.
- Myth: People with PTSD are Dangerous. A typical misconception of PTSD is that it makes people lash out and get violent and aggressive, often while lost in the middle of a flashback, unaware of where they actually are. While this can happen, aggression and losing touch with reality are not typical signs of PTSD. Violent behavior is rare with PTSD, but the risk is increased with substance abuse and co-occurring mental illnesses.
- Myth: PTSD Only Develops Right after Trauma. This is a dangerous myth, because it leads to the assumption that an individual is “safe” from PTSD if symptoms have not developed months after trauma. The truth is that, while many people with the condition do first experience symptoms in the few months after traumatic experiences, PTSD symptoms may not appear for months or even years in others. They can also develop and go away, only to return again later.
- Myth: PTSD is Untreatable. This myth is also dangerous. It can take away hope for someone really struggling to cope with a past trauma. Treatment for any mental illness is complicated compared to most medical illnesses. There is no single medication or therapy that provides a cure for every patient. However, PTSD is a treatable, manageable condition. Evidence from research shows that specific, trauma-focused therapies are effective in treating PTSD as compared to general behavioral therapy. Effectiveness is measured in the reduction of PTSD symptoms as well as related anxiety and depression and no longer meeting the criteria for a diagnosis.
- Fact: Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Doesn’t Have to Be Forever. Treatment for PTSD is a long road. It can’t be fixed in a couple of therapy sessions. On the other hand, it is possible for patients in treatment to face past trauma, process it in a healthier way, learn coping mechanisms for difficult memories, and minimize or eliminate PTSD symptoms. Trauma-focused therapies, like prolonged-exposure therapy, cognitive-processing therapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, and eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing are all proven to reduce symptoms. What they all have in common is helping patients face traumatic memories and process and cope with them in healthy ways.
PTSD myths must be sorted from facts to help better understand this terrible condition. If you or someone you love has gone through a traumatic experience, seek guidance from a mental health professional right away. Even without symptoms, therapy can help prevent them. And if you have developed symptoms of PTSD, therapists can help you overcome the trauma that caused them.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.