The Biggest Myths About PTSD Debunked

There are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma comes in multiple forms, and anyone who has witnessed a terrifying, shocking, or life-threatening experience can develop this mental illness.

Unfortunately most people will experience trauma to some extent in their lives, but not all trauma leads to developing PTSD. PTSD is diagnosed after persistent symptoms like flashbacks, social anxiety, or nightmares last for over a month and are negatively affecting a person’s everyday life.

While PTSD has been studied by clinicians since the 1980’s, there are many people who still hold harsh or uneducated stigmas surrounding PTSD. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest myths about PTSD, and why they are incorrect.

Myth #1: Only Military Veterans Get PTSD

It is understandable there is belief that PTSD only affects military veterans, especially due to PTSD being added by the American Psychiatric Association to its third edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, shortly after the Vietnam war had ended. The symptoms that are associated with PTSD have always existed when someone has experienced a traumatic event, but this was the first time being given a diagnosis of post-traumatic disorder. 

This being said, the misconception that only veterans can experience PTSD can be harmful to those who have suffered from trauma and do not think their trauma is associated with PTSD. PTSD can affect people who have experienced sexual assault, trauma in their childhood, car accidents, terrorist attacks, living through national disasters, or those who have suffered through domestic abuse.

While military veterans have a higher exposure to traumatic events, PTSD can affect anyone and doesn’t necessarily mean they need to face a life-threatening trauma to develop this mental disorder.

Myth #2: Experiencing Trauma Means You Will Develop PTSD

Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, however the majority of people recover over time. Others develop PTSD. Going through trauma is not rare, and about 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma throughout their lives.

Most people experience extreme signs of distress after a traumatic incident, and have symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, or depression, but tend to recover over time. Meanwhile, some go on to experience severe symptoms that last for several months to years.

Myth #3: PTSD Cannot Be Treated 

Mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can be treated. There are countless treatments available for those who have experienced traumatic events. The National Institute for Mental health sees these treatment options as beneficial to those who suffer with symptoms of PTSD:

  • Psychotherapy is also known as “talk therapy”. Speaking with a mental health professional, in one-on-one sessions or in group therapy settings, you can learn how to use relaxation and anger-management strategies to cope with your reactions to the trauma. A therapist will also be able to provide you with tips that can help your day-to-day routine.
  • PET or Prolonged Exposure Therapy involves facing your fears and learning how to control them. This therapy can expose you to your trauma using mental imagery of the trauma, or having you visit the site of the traumatic event.
  • Cognitive Process Therapy (CPT) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps you come to terms with the bad memories associated with your trauma. Whether you feel guilt or shame about your trauma, you and your therapist can further examine your feelings and why you feel the way you do.
  • Medications can help you control your feelings of anger, sadness, and anxiety. Antidepressants are the most common medications when helping with PTSD, and may be prescribed in addition to your psychotherapy sessions. Talking to your physician or healthcare provider about these medications will help you come up with a plan in managing your symptoms.

Myth #4: People Who Have PTSD Are Dangerous

The media paints a certain character for those who suffer with PTSD, leading to people associating anger and violence to those who are diagnosed with PTSD. In reality, psychosis or aggression are not hallmark symptoms of PTSD. A vast majority of people with PTSD are nonviolent.

Main symptoms that are associated with PTSD include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Avoiding thoughts, feelings, locations, and people associated with the traumatic event
  • Flashbacks or sensations of the even recurring
  • Hypervigilance
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Guilt
  • Unable to enjoy old hobbies
  • Isolation
  • Low mood

Myth #5: PTSD Occurs Immediately After a Traumatic Event

It’s a common misconception that because someone has gone through a traumatic experience, they will immediately have signs of PTSD after the event. This is not always the case, and some may not show any symptoms of PTSD for months to years. 

This is formally known as delayed onset PTSD, which is diagnosed if the condition is developed at least 6 months after the traumatic event occurred. Delayed onset PTSD was originally presented mostly in war veterans who had returned home, because their stress response and reactions to the traumatic events were not helpful in combat, resulting in a delayed response to trauma.

More recently, there have been alternative explanations about delayed onset PTSD, where we see that extremely stressful situations impact how one’s memories are stored, making them less accessible during conscious thought. People’s perceptions may change over several months following the traumatic experience, and some may never have any symptoms at all until many years later.

Myth #6: Those With PTSD Are Weak

PTSD is linked to changes in the brain, altering the fear response. Experiencing trauma can impair cognitive functions, as well as fear responses when a situation is not immediately threatening.

The brain has learned these processes by means of protecting itself, and these responses and behaviors are not voluntary. It is a flight or fight response, and typically does not involve rational thought, so it does not allow those with PTSD to have a choice over their symptoms.

Trauma can shape a person’s behaviors and reactions against their will. There is nothing weak about PTSD, in fact most who deal with this everyday struggle are very strong throughout how much they have suffered.

Seeking PTSD Treatment and Therapy

PTSD is a serious, chronic mental health condition that takes its toll on everyday life. People often refrain from telling friends or loved ones about their diagnosis, due to fear of being viewed as unstable or dangerous. Seeking treatment for this condition can greatly improve symptoms, health, and quality of life. 

Understanding and being able to re-evaluate traumatic experiences with a trusted mental health professional can help move through their trauma, and regain control over their thoughts and feelings related to their traumatic experience.

Stanley Wipfli is a licensed trauma based therapist located in downtown San Francisco, who specializes in therapy for anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Stanley is trained in evidence-based therapy methods, and uses extensive experience and knowledge to provide the highest quality of care. 

With therapy, it’s possible to discover a life to thrive in beyond your trauma.

You don’t have to suffer when help is available. Contact Stanley Wipfli today for a free 15-minute consultation. In-person therapy is available in downtown San Francisco, as well as virtual therapy sessions for all California residents.