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PTSD Myths and Realities

Researched by Deborah Spivak & Ruth MacDougall. Written by Ruth MacDougall.

Myths connected with PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) can be harmful to those who have it. Myths may prevent PTSD sufferers from seeking help, cause misunderstanding and resentment, and raise fears of being seen as unstable or dangerous. Here are five myths about PTSD and why they are wrong.

  1. Myth: PTSD does not exist.
    Reality: PTSD does exist. It is a health condition known about and studied for many years.

The condition has not always been called PTSD. In past eras the disorder had names like shell shock, war neurosis, soldier’s heart, and combat fatigue. The name PTSD became common after appearing in a publication of the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.

The National Library of Medicine defines PTSD as “an anxiety disorder that can develop in individuals who have been exposed to an event or events that involved the threat of death or serious injury and reacted with intense fear, helplessness or horror.”

How the body handles the intense feelings connected to the traumatic event can cause changes in the brain that may lead to PTSD symptoms. Brain imaging technology shows the changes. Parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory stop functioning properly.

Learn more about how PTSD affects the brain at Brainline and PTSD UK.

  1. Myth: Only the military or people in war zones get PTSD.
    Reality:
    PTSD can develop in anyone, men, women, and children. Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can lead to PTSD. Traumatic events include:

      • war
      • threatened or actual physical or sexual assault
      • a violent crime or accident
      • natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Some people may develop it because their traumatic event lasted for a long time or was especially horrific. Others may have a genetic predisposition to developing it. This is like some people having a genetic predisposition to developing heart disease or diabetes.

  1. Myth: PTSD always happens right after the traumatic event.
    Reality:
    Symptoms of PTSD can develop any time after a traumatic event. Some sufferers experience symptoms soon after the event. Others begin months or years after. Symptoms may come and go throughout a lifetime.

    PTSD symptoms light up specific parts of brains
  2. Myth: People with PTSD are dangerous.
    Reality: Research shows that most people with PTSD, Veterans and non-Veterans, have never engaged in violence. When other factors like age, alcohol and drug use, and additional disorders are considered, the association between PTSD and violence decreases.

Aggression and violence are not characteristic symptoms of PTSD. The main symptoms include:

      • Avoiding places, thoughts, feelings, and people that remind of the traumatic event
      • Disturbing thoughts
      • Flashbacks, or the impression that the event is happening again
      • Guilt
      • Hypervigilance, always on guard
      • Insomnia, sleeplessness
      • Irritability
      • Isolation
      • Lack of interest
      • Nightmares
      • Trouble concentrating

There can also be physical symptoms like:

      • exhaustion
      • digestive issues
      • jaw clenching
      • tense muscles
      • increased sensitivity to ordinary sounds
  1. Myth: PTSD cannot be treated.
    Reality: PTSD can be effectively treated. Doctors and researchers have found various treatment methods that can relieve PTSD symptoms.

A treatment that works well for one person may not work well for others. Sometimes a combination of treatments works best.  Some available treatments are:

Trauma-focused Psychotherapies
This style of treatment focuses on the memory of the traumatic event and its meaning. It is the most highly recommended type of treatment for PTSD. Some of these therapies involve talking, thinking about, or visualizing the traumatic memory. Others focus on changing unhelpful beliefs about the trauma.

These three trauma-focused psychotherapies have the strongest evidence of helping:

1. Prolonged Exposure (PE) – teaches gaining control by facing negative feelings. It involves talking with a therapist about the traumatic event and doing some of the things avoided since the trauma.

2. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) – teaches reframing negative thoughts about the trauma. It involves talking with a therapist about negative thoughts and doing short writing assignments.

3. Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – helps with processing and making sense of the trauma. It involves bringing the trauma to mind while focusing on a back-and-forth movement or sound (like a finger waving side to side, a light, or a tone).

Learn more about these and other psychotherapies at the National Center for PTSD site.

Medications
Medications may be used for overall PTSD symptoms. They may be used to manage specific symptoms, like sleep issues. They may be used alone or along with psychotherapy.

Non-trauma-focused psychotherapies
Research supporting non-trauma-focused psychotherapies is not as strong as for trauma-focused therapies. But they may be helpful. Non-trauma-focused psychotherapies include:

      • Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)
      • Present-Centered Therapy (PCT)
      • Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) for PTSD

Recreation and Sports Therapy
A review of studies conducted by Syracuse University found that sports and physical activities might help reduce PTSD symptoms. Other studies support that finding. Learn about sports and recreation therapy programs for Veterans in KAV’s article ‘Sports – More Than Just Fun and Games‘.

Other Options
There is less evidence of the effectiveness of practices like yoga, mindfulness, and acupuncture in lessening PTSD symptoms, but some people find them helpful.

Treatment Resources

Regardless of what the disorder is called, PTSD is a real condition. Debunking myths can help lessen misunderstanding of a condition that can affect anyone who experiences extreme trauma.

Sources

Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. (2014, October 8). Brain Imaging Helps Link Specific Symptoms of PTSD with Specific Brain Activity. BBR Foundation. https://www.bbrfoundation.org/content/brain-imaging-helps-link-specific-symptoms-ptsd-specific-brain-activity#:~:

Crocq, M.A. and Crocq, L. (2000). From Shell Shock and War Neurosis to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: a History of Psychotraumatology.  Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 2(1), 47–55.  https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2000.2.1/macrocq

Dallas, Mary Elizabeth. (2014, September 19). PTSD Symptoms Light Up Specific Parts of Brains. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ptsd-symptoms-light-up-specific-parts-of-brain/

Davis, Shirley. (2021, June 7).  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Brain. CPTSD Foundation. https://cptsdfoundation.org/2021/06/07/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-and-the-brain/

Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense. (2017). VA/DOD Clinical Practice Guideline For The Management Of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.   https://www.healthquality.va.gov/guidelines/MH/ptsd/VADoDPTSDCPGPatientSummaryFinalRev0731172.pdf

Elbogen, E. B., Johnson, S. C., Wagner, H. R., Sullivan, C., Taft, C. T., & Beckham, J. C. (2014). Violent Behaviour and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in US Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 204(5), 368–375. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.113.134627

Health 24. (2017, July 17). PTSD Causes Physical Changes to Brain. News 24. https://www.news24.com/health24/Mental-Health/News/ptsd-causes-physical-changes-to-brain-20170717

Healthwise Staff. (2021, June 16). PTSD Myths. Health Link BC. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/ptsd-myths

The London Free Press. (2019, January 31). Brain imaging shows damage caused by PTSD [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo1w54g9gK8

Norman, Sonya, Elbogen, Eric B. and Schnurr, Paula P. (n.d.). Research Findings on PTSD and Violence. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from  https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/cooccurring/research_violence.asp

Ryback, Ralph. (2016, October 31). 5 Myths About PTSD. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201610/5-myths-about-ptsd

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (n.d.). How PTSD Affects The Brain. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from Brainline. https://www.brainline.org/article/how-ptsd-affects-brain

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