Experts Uncover the Truth
Though post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not particularly uncommon, it’s frequently misunderstood. The term often evokes a narrow view of the disorder, which can lead to stereotypes, such as a veteran startled by the sound of fireworks. However, it’s much more complex than that. Here, we’ve consulted with behavioral health experts to uncover the truth about PTSD and address some prevailing myths about it.
By Anna Hill
Myth No. 1: PTSD only affects military veterans.
PTSD has a very strong and often inseparable association with military veterans and other service members. However, according to Janelle Edmondson, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and owner of Phoenix Health, PLLC, “Trauma is anything that overrides the brain’s ability to cope. This can include, but is not limited to, military experience, childhood abuse, sexual violence, physical assault, severe medical illness or injury, natural disasters, neglect, and domestic violence.” Anyone who has experienced or witnessed events such as these can develop PTSD, and PTSD can occur from a single incident, multiple events, or prolonged exposure over a period of time.
The association made in this myth does have at least some basis in reality, though, as those in the military or in any kind of service position that involves elevated risk have a higher likelihood of exposure to traumatic events. That being said, PTSD can affect any person of any age, from any kind of background.
Myth No. 2: The symptoms of PTSD are the same for everyone.
PTSD is a complex diagnosis, and someone must be experiencing a certain number of its specific symptoms to qualify for a diagnosis. That being said, not everyone with PTSD experiences the exact same symptoms or experiences them in the exact same way. Common symptoms include:
- Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event (flashbacks)
- Insomnia or nightmares/night terrors about the event
- Negative emotional states such as depression, anxiety, fear, shame, and guilt
- A persistent inability to experience positive emotions
- Irritability, anger, and self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse or isolation
- An exaggerated startle response (hypervigilance)
Though the above symptoms are the most common ones, they aren’t the only ones. “Dissociative symptoms such as depersonalization, which is a feeling of detachment or like you’re observing your life outside of yourself, and derealization, which is when you experience a sense of distorted, dreamlike, or distant reality, are some of the less common symptoms,” explains Adam B. Barkeloo, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Erlanger Behavioral Health Hospital.
There are also notable differences in the way that adults and children experience the disorder. Children, especially younger children, are often unable to understand and process traumatic events and, as a result, are often unable to properly express what has happened and that they need help. PTSD can lead children to regress developmentally, such as wetting the bed or using baby talk that they had previously grown out of. They might also re-enact their trauma while playing with toys or with other children. “Children with PTSD may seem more distracted and avoidant, which can look like more of a behavioral issue than a clear indicator that they have PTSD,” says Christy Belew, the clinical milieu manager for latency programs at Parkridge Valley Child & Adolescent Campus. “Children often use their behaviors as their language, so their behaviors may be more expansive and problematic at times.”
Myth No. 3: Anxiety disorders and PTSD are more or less the same.
While anxiety can certainly be a symptom of PTSD, they are incredibly different diagnoses. The instigating factor of PTSD is a specific traumatic event, or a series of them, whereas anxiety is much more generalized – it’s rarely traced back to a specific incident. “Anxiety often presents itself vaguely, with a general feeling of discomfort that is difficult to pin down and difficult to describe with all its variable presentations,” says Barkeloo. On the other hand, PTSD is an umbrella of very specific symptoms, many of which can be actively and persistently disruptive to someone’s life.
Myth No. 4: Anyone who experiences trauma will have PTSD.
Though a traumatic event or series of events is the key to a diagnosis of PTSD, that doesn’t mean everyone who experiences trauma will end up with it. “People often assume that if you have experienced any trauma, you automatically have PTSD,” explains Belew. “That being said, it isn’t about the experience alone, but more about the way your brain handles that experience.” It’s also important to note that PTSD can be commonly mistaken for something else by the patient, and what they’re actually sufffering from doesn’t meet the strict criteria for PTSD. For example, getting fired from a job, filing for divorce, or losing a grandparent to natural causes may cause someone to experience anxiety, depression, shock, or grief, but those negative feelings do not necessarily indicate that they are in fact experiencing PTSD.
Myth No. 5: PTSD is something you have to suffer through alone.
PTSD is an incredibly difficult disorder to grapple with on your own, and it doesn’t help matters that seeking counseling and treatment for it can be stigmatized. It is never weak or shameful to reach out for help, and there are resources available for those who think they might be suffering from PTSD. It can be a chronic and debilitating disorder, but it’s important to know that there are several different treatment options for it. Both trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and prolonged exposure cognitive processing therapy are common treatment options.
Prescription medications can also be used to treat symptoms of depression as well as reduce nightmares and flashbacks. However, some combination of therapy and medication is often the most effective in collectively combating all of the facets of PTSD. “The best way to know what approach is most appropriate for you is to seek out advice from a trauma professional,” says Edmondson. “I would recommend interviewing more than one provider to make sure you are a good fit for each other.”
“Trauma affects people in different ways, so even if you know you have experienced trauma, but don’t think you are having symptoms of PTSD, it doesn’t hurt to have an evaluation,” says Belew. There are often resources available to you at schools, hospitals, and mental health centers in your community. Reach out to them – you don’t have to go through this alone.