Don’t Be Fooled by These PTSD Myths

For many people, their understanding of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comes from the characters they see in movies and television shows. While some characters such as Dr. Owen Hunt from Grey’s Anatomy show a relatively accurate portrayal of a person with PTSD, our overall understanding of the condition is clouded by sensationalized and inaccurate portrayals.

In honor of PTSD Awareness Month in June, Dr. William Beecroft, M.D., has helped dispel some of the most common misconceptions about this mental health condition:

  1. Only military veterans experience PTSD.
    While nearly 30 percent of veterans experience PTSD, it is not exclusive to combat and war situations. Anyone, even children, can get PTSD from an emotional trauma of any kind. Examples of catastrophic experiences that can cause PTSD include: riots, sexual assault, child abuse, physical abuse, and natural disasters (such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and fires).
  2. The most common symptom of PTSD is hallucinations.
    Movies and television shows may show that people with PTSD hallucinate or act out their flashbacks of the catastrophic event, but the most common symptoms are those that are most commonly associated with our natural “fight or flight” response. For patients with PTSD, these symptoms include sudden, out of the blue episodes of panic, tunnel vision, acute hearing, sweating, and elevated heartrate. Other common symptoms of PTSD are nightmares similar to the event, dizziness, reduced peripheral vision, headaches, and nausea. One way to tell if someone has developed PTSD is also by an abrupt change in personality, such as a sudden change from a mild mannered personality to an agitated, angry, or violent one. People with PTSD may also experience dissociative episodes in which they feel as if they are separate from reality and they are watching themselves live their lives.
  3. A person with PTSD will start to experience PTSD symptoms immediately after a traumatic event.
    While individuals with PTSD may experience some symptoms shortly after a traumatic event occurs, other symptoms may not manifest until months or years later. If a person experiences PTSD symptoms during or immediately after a traumatic event, this is called acute distress disorder. If these symptoms persist and more symptoms develop months or years afterwards, it is more clearly defined as posttraumatic stress disorder.
  4. People with PTSD are too “crazy,” “unstable,” and “violent” for everyday experiences because anything/nothing can trigger them.
    People with PTSD or any other mental health condition are not crazy. In many cases, people with PTSD are not violent. However, the aforementioned symptoms can be triggered by any type of sensation that makes the person recall, and thus relive, the catastrophic experience. This can be anything such as a sound, a smell, a feeling, or the sight of certain objects. Dr. Beecroft describes our brains as having burglar alarms that go off when we sense danger. A person with PTSD is like a house with a burglar alarm that has been set to a higher sensitivity level than necessary, so the alarm may set off when there is no apparent threat of danger. It takes time and treatment to reduce the “sensitivity settings” of someone with PTSD.
  5. There is no successful way to treat PTSD.
    The two most widely used methods to treat PTSD are psychotherapy and medications, often a combination of both. The two main types of psychotherapy for treating posttraumatic stress disorder are cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure response prevention therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is commonly used to treat depression, identifies the relationships between thoughts and behaviors that cause complications. Exposure response prevention therapy exposes the patient to triggers in order to decrease the symptoms.
    In order to get treatment for PTSD, a person needs to be diagnosed through an evaluation by a psychologist or therapist. Self-help groups also offer support and guidance outside of therapy.

Photo credit: Dagny Mol

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