By Kathryn Taylor Millán, M.A., LPC/MHSP
While all people are susceptible to the effects of trauma, conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder are often discussed without clear definitions or explanations. As with many other mental health concerns, people often guess which trauma reactions are normal or abnormal.
Myths about trauma abound, but modern science has allowed us to understand and treat the effects of trauma like never before. Test your trauma awareness through these top five trauma myths:
MYTH: Anyone who experiences a trauma will eventually have post-traumatic stress disorder.
FACT: Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are diagnoses reserved for people who experience trauma and then go on to re-experience the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks, have pervasive negative feelings about the trauma, and thus (as you might expect), try to avoid all of the uncomfortable emotions and memories associated with the trauma. People who struggle with PTSD often feel anxious and irritable, or have trouble concentrating or sleeping properly.1
Amazingly, some people are able to avoid PTSD, even after they experience terrible events. A person may experience anxiety, grief, or even acute stress disorder, but seek recovery before it turns into PSTD. According to a study in Biological Psychology, early intervention is key.2
MYTH: Trauma and conditions like PTSD only impact people who have had a near-death experience.
FACT: Trauma, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the handbook used by all licensed clinicians and doctors), includes any incident that involves “actual or threatened death or serious injury.”1
If a situation feels life-threatening, or a person feels an extreme loss of control followed by fear for their ability to survive normally (whether that feeling is accurate or not), then that person may have experienced trauma. Further, we all perceive stressful incidents in our own unique ways. Accidents, violence, and abuse can all be traumatic to some people, while living in a very dangerous neighborhood, having a sick child, or living near a natural disaster can be traumatic to others.
Factors such as how often trauma occurs, life experience, age, physical ability and living conditions may all contribute to making an incident traumatic. No matter who you are, the human brain reacts to threats in a physiological way over which we often have no control. When we perceive trauma, our brains engage to try and protect us without wasting a moment to decide if the threat is legitimately life-threatening or not.
MYTH: Post-traumatic stress disorder only impacts soldiers.
FACT: Because all humans have similar brain structures and capabilities, anyone may be at risk of PTSD after a particularly distressing and uncontrolled event. PTSD can impact anyone from your friends and neighbors to military personnel or political leaders. However, veterans who return from active duty military service are at a slightly higher risk of developing PTSD.
In a break-down of the numbers, up to 20 percent of veterans who served in military operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year, and approximately 30 percent of all Vietnam War veterans have received diagnoses of PTSD at some point.
In comparison, about 7 to 8 percent of the general population is diagnosed with PTSD at some point. Women are about twice as likely as men to experience PTSD.3
MYTH: Strong people can deal with trauma on their own and don’t need help.
FACT: PTSD and other trauma reactions have nothing to do with mental strength, character or background.
This myth ties in to the stigma that surrounds many mental health conditions, and it is rooted in old ways of thinking that prevailed before society began to understand how the brain works. The truth is that ANYONE can experience a trauma reaction after a terrifying incident because the human brain has set ways of understanding and responding to threats.
Factors that may impact a person’s reaction to trauma include:
- The severity of the trauma and the level of stress associated with the incident
- Genetic brain wiring, structure and neurotransmitter levels that were inherited from parents
- How often the trauma was experienced, or how long the trauma lasted
- The person’s personal history of trauma and if he or she experienced childhood trauma
- The individual’s support system at the time of the incident4,5
MYTH: Trauma reactions last forever and are incurable.
FACT: Some traumas feel so huge and so insurmountable that it may seem impossible to move forward in life. Most survivors wonder if they will ever feel happy again, and they worry that they will be anxious forever. Fortunately, this is not the case. The human brain strives for equilibrium. Our bodies are designed to heal over time.
Thankfully, new treatments for trauma are being proven every day. Society is beginning to understand what trauma means, and we are learning how to support each other through distress. Counselors, doctors and psychologists are pioneering new treatments for PTSD and helping people get back to the business of enjoying life again.
If you have experienced a trauma and are having a difficult time shaking that trauma out of your mind and your life, you are not alone. Supportive groups, informative books and helping professionals that truly care are available. It is possible to heal.
1 American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, VA. American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. Print.
2 Rothbaum, Barbara Olasov, et al. Early Intervention May Prevent the Development of PTSD: A Randomized Pilot Civilian Study with Modified Prolonged Exposure. Biological Psychiatry, December 1, 2012.
3 “How Common is PTSD?” US Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed January 8, 2018.
4 Dohrenwend, Bruce. “Why Some Soldiers Develop PTSD While Others Don’t?” Association for Psychological Science, February 21, 2013.
5 Bernhard, Toni. “Five Common Misconceptions About Trauma: How the science of post-traumatic growth revolutionizes our approach to trauma.” Psychology Today, October 27, 2015.