Shell shock. War strain. Combat fatigue. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been called many things over the years, but what is it really? Is it an unfortunate affliction reserved for soldiers and war refugees? Is it a violent gremlin locked up inside each and every patient, ready to erupt at any moment? Does inner strength protect against PTSD? Is inner weakness a prerequisite?
Although clinicians have been aware of the realities of PTSD since the 1980s, many people still hold unfounded beliefs about this disorder. This article will review five common myths associated with PTSD and why they’re wrong.
1. Only soldiers get PTSD.
When most people think about PTSD, they picture hardened war veterans. While PTSD commonly affects veterans — estimates that anywhere from 11 to 30 percent of soldiers will develop PTSD in their lifetime — anyone can develop the disorder.
Eight million Americans cope with PTSD each year, many of whom have never served in the military. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, with a lifetime incidence of 1 in 10. (Men, in contrast, have a lifetime incidence of 1 in 25.) Women are more likely to develop PTSD due to sexual assault and child sexual abuse, whereas men are more likely to develop the disorder due to accidents, physical assault, natural disaster and combat.
2. Experiencing trauma is enough to develop PTSD.
Unfortunately, traumatic experiences are very common. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one trauma over the course of their lives. Traumatic events can include sexual assault, physical assault, accidents, child abuse, combat, natural disaster or witnessing death or injury.
Most people who experience trauma, however, do not develop PTSD. They may experience signs of acute stress after the incident including insomnia, anxiety and depression, but with time, these people tend to recover. Others, meanwhile, go on to experience severe symptoms that last for several months if not years, potentially earning a diagnosis of PTSD.
3. People with PTSD are weak.
Since not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, does this mean that the people who DO develop PTSD are weaker than those who do not?
PTSD, like any mental illness, is not a character flaw. Some individuals who develop PTSD may do so because of a genetic predisposition to the disorder — not unlike a genetic predisposition to heart disease. Others may develop PTSD because the trauma they experienced was particularly horrific, or because the traumatic experience lasted for a long time.
Because PTSD is an actual, biological illness with real neurological consequences, no one can get better by simply trying harder to be healthy. Professional treatment is not an admission of defeat, but rather an essential step in treating a brain disease.
4. People with PTSD are dangerous.
Most of us are familiar with the classic movie trope — a character with PTSD doesn’t recognize that he’s no longer at war and violently lashes out at the people around him.
- 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
- Low mood
Although some studies have found that people with PTSD are more inclined toward violence than the general population, these effects were eliminated once the researchers examined confounding factors such as substance misuse and co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Even without taking these factors into account, however, the vast majority of people with PTSD are nonviolent — less than 8 percent of the PTSD community commits violent behavior.
5. PTSD cannot be treated.
Mental illnesses like PTSD cannot be cured, but they can be treated.
Researchers and clinicians have uncovered multiple treatment modalities that reduce the symptoms associated with PTSD, including cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization therapy, or EMDR. Psychiatric medication like mood stabilizers can help if the person has an underlying cyclic mood disorder. Often, the most useful medications — such a prazosin (Minipress) – are those that calm the brain and the individual, and allow normal sleep without nightmares.
It’s completely possible to live a normal life while also coping with PTSD. You’ve probably met multiple people with PTSD over the course of your life — and never even realized it.
The facts, the myths and the stigma
Since so few people recognize the realities associated with PTSD, individuals who struggle with the disorder often feel misunderstood — and for good reason. People with PTSD may resist telling their friends or loved ones about the diagnosis, for fear they’d be viewed as dangerous or unstable. They might resist treatment, erroneously believing that the best way to fight PTSD is to just “be mentally strong.”
The myths associated with PTSD build a stigma that prevents patients from getting help, making misinformation about this disorder not only wrong, but dangerous. It’s vital that all of us understand how to separate the facts from the myths when it comes to mental illness.
Contributed by Courtney Lopresti, M.S., Sovereign Health