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Debunking Common Myths Surrounding PTSD: What PTSD Actually Looks Like (Today)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sometimes develops as a response to experiencing a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Stemming from fight-or-flight, a normal response to such a life-threatening experience, PTSD is the devolution into repeated, abnormal responses to normal events — far-reaching beyond the time of the trauma experienced. Symptoms can begin to manifest soon after the trauma or months or even years afterwards. Symptoms are categorized as re-experiencing (e.g. flashbacks, frightening thoughts), avoidance (e.g. avoiding physical and/or emotional reminders of the trauma), arousal/reactivity (e.g. easily startled, feeling “on edge”), or cognition/mood (e.g. loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, trouble remembering key features of the event). To be diagnosed with PTSD, an individual must have experienced 1+ re-experiencing symptoms, 1+ avoidance symptoms, 2+ arousal/reactivity symptoms, and 2+ cognition/mood symptoms for at least 1 month. Please note that only a trained mental health professional should evaluate for and diagnose PTSD.

With the increased awareness surrounding mental health that has come over the course of the 21st century, many more people are aware of PTSD. Our understanding of it has come a long way from the earliest accounts of “soldier’s heart” during the Civil War era, or even what was termed “shell shock” during World War 1. However, there are still some common misconceptions surrounding PTSD, which I hope to debunk here.

  1. PTSD only affects those who have seen combat. Although that is a common portrayal, it can affect those who have experienced any trauma — including but not limited to war, physical abuse, sexual abuse, natural disasters,and severe accidents. In fact, sexual assault is the type of trauma most likely to result in the development of PTSD.
  2. PTSD is inevitable. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event is going to develop PTSD. That is a surprisingly common, and very harmful, perception. And it is a myth. There are both risk and resilience factors surrounding trauma and the development — or not — of PTSD. About 8 percent of the entire US population is affected, accordingly to current estimates from the VA. This includes 4 percent of all adult men in the United States and 10 percent of all adult women in the United States. Women are more at risk of developing PTSD, both because they experience trauma differently and because they are more likely to experience sexual assault. Other risk factors include experiencing sexual trauma, childhood abuse, multiple traumas or having little to no social support after the event. Resilience factors include seeking out social support, finding positive coping strategies, and being able to respond to situations effectively even when experiencing intense fear.
  3. PTSD is limited to a specific age group. There is no specific age group for PTSD, however, children are among the most susceptible to developing PTSD after experiencing a trauma due to their age, which renders them incredibly vulnerable to mental stress. In fact, one risk factor for developing PTSD is experiencing childhood abuse.
  4. PTSD sufferers are unstable and violent. PTSD sufferers are often portrayed this way, as unstable and violent individuals, in popular culture. A well-known example is Owen, in Grey’s Anatomy, violently choking his then-wife, Christina, when a ceiling fan triggers flashbacks to his time in Iraq. That may be the case for some but it all depends on the individual. PTSD does not manifest in one fixed manner for every sufferer. And, oftentimes, symptoms range more along the lines of hypervigilance and social withdrawal, a self-imposed isolation of sorts. Violence can be more common in those who are struggling with substance abuse, in addition to PTSD — perhaps as an unhealthy coping mechanism. However, it is not even remotely the hallmark of a PTSD sufferer. Which brings me to the next misconception…
  5. PTSD sufferers cannot function in the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth. About 8 percent of the US population is currently suffering from PTSD. That’s about 8 people of every 100 you know. But more likely than not, most of us are completely unaware of who these individuals are, unless these individuals have taken us into their confidence about their experience with PTSD. More often than not, an average person would never be able to identify these individuals. With the right therapist, support, and perhaps accommodations at school or work, PTSD sufferers can go about their daily lives. Everyone has their off days, and those living with PTSD are no exception. Some days are absolutely worse than others, so maybe some symptoms that may manifest in public. But some of these, such as avoidance behaviors or heightened startle reflexes, can match other conditions like general or social anxiety. Many sufferers can live relatively-normal lives with properly managed PTSD, and with the right support, they can eventually recover fully.

I hope to leave you not just with a better understanding of PTSD, but a better understanding of sufferers and just what they are living with. I also hope I have left you with a message of hope, that there is help and there are solutions. I urge you, if you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD, to seek help from a trained mental health professional. Even if you are not at all affected, please educate yourself. After all, a better understanding of mental health can only make us better friends, family members, and eventually, better doctors and leaders. Educate yourself and your peers, so we can begin to approach mental health with compassion rather than judgment. Let’s make mental health a priority, not a stigma.

Author’s note: Please seek out the help of a trained mental health professional if you believe you, or someone you know, may have PTSD. This is a condition that should only be evaluated, diagnosed, and treated by a trained mental health professional. Statistics contained in this article came from the Veterans Affairs Department. Common misconceptions used in this article came from an article by Veterans Today.

Anusha Kothapalli Anusha Kothapalli (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

West Virginia School of Medicine

Anusha is a first year medical student at West Virginia School of Medicine. She is a strong believer in a holistic approach to wellness and healing. She is also an unapologetic feminist and advocate. When she has free time, she loves hanging out with her dog, writing, and reading.