Many misconceptions exist about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These myths get in the way of healing by creating obstacles for people seeking treatment and need to be debunked. Listed below are the top five misconceptions I hear.
1. I am crazy and am losing my mind.
- Anger or rage that seems to arise instantaneously
- Flashbacks (reliving the event as if it were happening right now in the present)
- Nightmares, difficulty sleeping
- Inability to feel positive emotions
- Difficulty functioning throughout the day
- Avoidance of the traumatic reminders
- Not feeling attached to your body/a feeling of floating outside of the body and/or feeling detached from other people
To further complicate matters, sometimes symptoms do not emerge for months or years after the traumatic experience. Because of this delayed reaction, the connection is not always made between the symptoms and the event. This makes the symptoms appear to come out of nowhere.
Even once the connection is made between the symptoms and the traumatic experience, symptoms can surface randomly and sometimes in very public moments. Despite appearing to come out of nowhere, symptoms are usually prompted by a “trigger” or reminder of the traumatic event. Learning to manage symptoms is empowering and a vital step in the healing process.
2. If I go to therapy I’ll have to talk about unpleasant memories.
Although talk therapy is helpful for many problems, it is not the first therapeutic treatment choice for PTSD because talking about trauma when symptoms are not contained can worsen symptoms and cause further psychological damage. The first step of trauma therapy includes learning how to contain or manage symptoms.
Trauma symptoms are similar to a tornado that blows fiercely, sweeping people and their lives into a state of chaos. Talking about traumatic experiences before symptoms are contained can awaken the trauma tornado and intensify symptoms. In trauma therapy, people are taught how to keep the swirling tornado at a safe distance.
This is done through a combination of treatment approaches such as learning about the symptoms of PTSD, grounding exercises, creative expression and art, prayer, guided imagery, creating rituals and sometimes medication. Once survivors learn to manage or contain symptoms, most want to talk about specific memories, and the therapist may use various techniques to aid this process.
3. I will always be broken and will never recover.
Remember PTSD is a natural reaction to abnormal stress just as bleeding is a natural reaction to a flesh wound on the body. We expect the body can repair itself in most instances, but sometimes believe the mind and psyche cannot. This is faulty thinking. The mind and psyche can heal just as the body can. Healing takes time, in-depth personal work and dedication to treatment. However, healing does not mean the past disappears but rather that the past no longer has the power to dominate the present.
In fact, as survivors of trauma heal, they discover wonderful insights and strengths about themselves. These insights are commonly referred to as post traumatic growth or the gifts of trauma.
A partial list of the “Gifts of Trauma” includes:
- Meaning and purpose in life
- Perceptive intuition
- Spiritual connected-ness or oneness
- Strong sense of self
- Thriver – I am stronger than I ever believed!
4. If I start crying, I’ll never stop.
The pain associated with trauma runs deep and the fear of unleashing those emotions can be terrifying. This may be especially true if messages one heard in childhood discouraged crying such as: “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” or “Go to your room, if you are going to cry like a baby.”
Crying can act as a release of emotion and stress. However despite how terrifying it may be to unleash the emotions and memories associated with trauma, it will not be as terrifying as it was to live through the actual traumatizing event.
However, bottling up emotion and stress can harm the body by contributing to medical conditions such as: muscle tension, headaches, insomnia, obesity, heart disease, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, and some skin conditions. Healing from trauma often includes some form of treatment that helps relieve the stress that has been building up in one’s body. This can include incorporating practices like meditation, art, exercise, energy and body work such as massage.
5. It happened a long time ago, and I should be over it.
Trauma creates changes in the way one’s brain functions. The simplest way to summarize this change is with a story. Our brains react to stress in what is known as a fight or flight response. For instance, imagine you are walking through the woods and accidentally step on a hornet’s nest. As the hornets begin to swarm, your brain kicks into action as you seek to outrun the hornets. For people with PTSD, the brain is often stuck in this state of high alert, constantly vigilant for signs of danger. Because the brain is stuck in stress overload, it is not simply a matter of moving past a bad experience any more than other medical condition is a case of moving past the condition without treatment.
Imagine tending to a case of strep throat with cough drops and over the counter pain medication. The streptococcus bacteria would continue to intensify and your pain to worsen! The same is true for trauma. If the root cause is not addressed, attempts at self-medication or “just getting over the past” are likely not going to be effective.
In summary, it is possible to live a meaningful and fulfilling life after being diagnosed with PTSD. By engaging in the difficult and rewarding work of healing, survivors are able to reclaim their lives and discover treasured characteristics about themselves that they might not have otherwise identified.
Carolyn Waterstradt, MA, LMSW, of the North Shore Clinic is a Licensed Master Social Worker, a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor, a Certified Trauma Specialist and holds a Trauma-Informed Art Therapy Certificate and a Master of Arts in Theology. A strengths-based therapist, Carolyn utilizes a variety of holistic approaches best suited to meet individual client need. She also has training in Eastern therapeutic practices and dream therapy.