Most people believe that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) happens rarely and not to most people. Think again. PTSD is more common than many of us may think. Among American adults, approximately 70% experience a traumatic event in their lifetimes. Of these people 30% will develop PTSD as a result.
Even though PTSD is prevalent, it is commonly misunderstood. It is difficult for those who haven’t experienced PTSD to envision how and why it can be so disabling and thus misconceptions prevail.
A survey of the experts who treat PTSD, as well as, some of the people who live with PTSD discuss firsthand what people typically get wrong about PTSD. Here’s what to keep in mind when it comes to PTSD:
1. Myth: Military people are primarily affected by PTSD.
· Many people believe that PTSD is related directly to being a soldier and the events of war. In actuality, PTSD may occur from many distressing events such as:
· serious accidents
· physical or sexual assault
· abuse, including childhood, domestic or spousal abuse
· exposure to traumatic events at work, including remote exposure
· serious health problems, such as being admitted to intensive care
· childbirth experiences, such as losing a baby
· war and conflict
“While military personnel can experience what may be life-altering PTSD, there are countless other types of trauma that result in severe PTSD,” added Lauren, who has had PTSD for almost 6 years. She experienced two severe health issues as well as, two pregnancy-related health conditions and came close to death. In addition to that, she suffered the loss of her son. Lauren developed PTSD after her experience.
“When I was diagnosed, I was surprised because I believed that only military vets had PTSD. My doctor explained that PTSD can be caused by any number of traumatic experiences but one traumatic experience alone can cause PTSD. Lauren stated, “I experienced three traumatic events ― a near death, emergency delivery and the loss of my baby. When my doctor explained PTSD, it gave me a clearer understanding of PTSD.”
2. Myth: When you have PTSD, you can’t live a normal life.
Many people with PTSD work and are able to manage their personal lives even though they have PTSD. “I have a great support network, as well as, a relationship and family ” said one woman who lived through an abusive relationship in 2001. She said that she still deals with the effects and symptoms of PTSD on a regular basis. “I startle easily if I hear a loud noise. Sometimes I go into panic mode and it may take a bit to calm down,” she explained. But she has learned coping mechanisms that help her.
3. Myth: PTSD is experienced the same way by everyone.
Even when two people experience the same traumatic event, they may experience the event completely differently and have a completely different reaction to the event. We all attach meaning to the things that happen to us based on our individual life experiences. Thus two people experiencing the same event may assign completely different meaning to the event and react differently.
One man, a former military paramedic, noted that of the different people he had served with, there was a wide range of reactions and triggers. Some were triggered by things that others had no reaction to at all. Some of the triggers included loud noises, certain sounds, smells, even certain places or people.
“My training involved ‘running towards danger’ because that’s where one would encounter the injured and be able to help. Now I find myself glancing through the crowd when I am out or at events, for threats or dangerous situations. It’s becomes exhausting to always be hypervigilant scouting for danger,” he said. He also stated that he can confuse sounds, like that of a car door slam and associate it with a blast or gunshot. Thus making what is normal into a tense moment for him. “Most people think there’s one treatment plan to fix everyone, but I have found that that’s not the case,” he said. Treatment plans are very specific to the individual.
4. Myth: “Ticking time bombs” describes people with PTSD.
This is a major misconception. Most people with PTSD don’t want to react or over react to you or anyone else ― nor would they want to cause themselves harm.
5. Myth: It’s a good idea to protect someone you love with PTSD from being triggered.
We may want to believe that we can help those we love by protecting them from being triggered. Even though your intentions are good, it isn’t always possible or helpful. Think about this for your loved one:
“If you live your life avoiding potential triggers, you may be making your problems worse. Your life may become narrow and small as you attempt to avoid so many things and you may find yourself isolated and alone. The most important piece of all of this is to be able to leave what happened in the past, clear your mind of the event and be able to live your life and enjoy the present moment, allowing your energy to be focused on the things and people you love rather than the past.
6. Myth: When people look healthy and happy, they must be over their PTSD.
One woman speaking of her PTSD stated, “Many people falsely assume that because I appear happy, I’ve moved on from that traumatic event.
The reality is PTSD has no timeline for recovery. Although she developed PTSD following the need for multiple brain surgeries, she stated she’s still dealing with the aftermath ― even when it’s not so obvious.
“In my case … when people can’t see the physical scars from surgery, which are covered by my hair, they think I am completely healed. I appear to be back to what looks like my former self. However, many of the issues I have faced are not visible and that includes PTSD,” she said.
“When you are on the outside looking in, it looks as though I am completely healed but with any major life event, those that are affected by PTSD can still be dealing with the emotional and mental issues of the event and the thought that life can never be the same as it was before the traumatic event.”
7. Myth: Triggers just aren’t a big deal.
Any more when people use the phrase triggered they can mean offended or outraged. However triggered has a much more significant meaning. Consider the subconscious mind for a moment. Being triggered is a process of the subconscious mind. Its job is to keep you alive and so far it has done a pretty good job. After all, you’re here reading this right now, right?
Consider for a moment when the original incident occurred, at the primitive level of the brain, a preprogrammed plan that was already in place was executed instantaneously and it did what it needed to do to keep you alive. Fight or Flight was implemented when the primitive level of the brain associated certain people, places and events with the possibility of imminent danger or death.
Now when something similar comes up, your brain associates it with the memory of the event. This initiates the fight or flight response as the primitive brain propels you into action to stay alive. Even though your cognitive brain knows there is no immediate danger, the emotional mind (which can over-ride the cognitive brain) hasn’t gotten the good news and triggers the fight or flight response.
8. Myth: The things that cause one to be triggered are obvious.
People are often surprised that they are triggered by certain stimuli. That’s because the triggers are part of the implicit (subconscious) memory and those things are not always explicit (known to you). The subconscious mind associates those things with danger and triggers you into fight or flight to save your life.
People who have suffered trauma can be triggered by stimuli that remind them of the inciting event, and it doesn’t always have to be something obvious. For instance, you don’t have to hear gunshots to be taken back to the scene of a crime that you witnessed.
“We know that it is not just the trauma that causes triggers but could be anything else that was happening, consciously or unconsciously at that moment, that reminds us of the traumatic event,” said Michael Genovese, chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare.
He stated that triggers could be witnessing something horrific, or something less obvious such as the color of clothing that someone was wearing, smells or sounds that were part of the scenario. “It can be much more impactful than one would believe,” he explained.
9. Myth: After a traumatic event, PTSD shows up right away.
This is a belief that most people hold to be true although it is most certainly not true.
One man stated that he had PTSD from a car wreck that caused physical injuries. He also said that symptoms can be worsened by ongoing treatment for injuries or the disability that may have been caused by it.
10. Myth: Only weak people get PTSD.
PTSD is not and has never been a sign of emotional weakness. Anyone can develop PTSD after being exposed to trauma. PTSD is instead a very normal reaction to what is considered horrific events. Many times those who come through to the other side of trauma are more resilient and emotionally stronger than those who have not experienced trauma. PTSD is not an emotional failing nor is seeking treatment an admission of weakness but rather a step of courage to move past an illness that is outside of one’s control and the hope to put the event forever behind you so you can focus on the present, the future and the things that matter most to you in life.
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