Experiencing a traumatic event is more common than most people think. However, there are several common misconceptions about living with trauma. It can be hard for people who have survived a traumatic event, and for people who seek to be supportive to survivors, to understand why their mind and body reacts as it does. Here are seven common myths about living with trauma.
Myth #1: You have to be physically hurt to experience trauma
Trauma results from an experience of intense fear (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Physical violence may have occurred but it may not have. Trauma can occur when the person feels like their life is in danger or when their sense of safety is threatened.
Myth #2: Everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
About 8% of the American population will develop PTSD in their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2005). However, PTSD can only be diagnosed when symptoms persist more than a month after the traumatic event (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). When symptoms similar to PTSD occur within the first month of the trauma, a person may be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder.
Myth #3: People who get PTSD are weak
There is no evidence that people who develop PTSD are weaker than those who do not. There are several factors that affect whether someone will get PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. Research suggests that there may be neurobiological factors that predispose certain people to developing PTSD (Keane, Marshall, & Taft, 2006). Other risk factors include past history of trauma, age at time of the traumatic event, type of trauma, and duration of trauma. Also, people who felt that they were supported by their friends and family were less likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event.
Myth #4: PTSD isn’t a real thing
Studies on the brain show measurable differences in a person’s brain after they have developed PTSD (Bremner, 2006). This means that PTSD actually changes the way your brain works and how it responds to your environment.
Myth #5: If I force myself to stop thinking about the trauma, it will go away
People often want to avoid thinking about the trauma and avoid anything that could remind them of it as well (Herman, 1997). This avoidance doesn’t stop the experience of pain and can severely limit a person’s life. People living with trauma may begin to socially isolate themselves or stop doing things they used to enjoy. Some survivors may also resort to drugs and/or alcohol to cope with the pain. The most effective way to overcome trauma is to talk about it.
Myth #6: I am going crazy
Many people coping with the aftermath of trauma feel like they are going crazy. Their mind and body may react in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. It is important to realize that this is normal for anyone who has survived a traumatic event. These reactions are often due to internal and external triggers, which make the memory of the trauma resurface (Tull, 2014). Internal triggers may be anger, fear, memories, or physiological cues like a racing heart or muscle tension. External triggers come from the environment such as people or places that remind you of the event, smells, anniversaries, or noises.
Myth #7: I’m going to feel like this for the rest of my life
Living with trauma is painful and for some people the effects are long lasting. The good news is that some people will recover from trauma over time, especially those who feel that they can rely on friends and family for support. There are also effective therapies out there for treating those who develop PTSD. A new area of research is showing that out of trauma can come posttraumatic growth, which is when trauma gives birth to positive changes (Joseph, 2014). For example, the mothers who lost their children due to drunk driving and formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an organization that aims to stop drunk driving and support victims.
Written By: Kaitlyn Masai, MA, PSB 94020891
Supervised By: Katja D. Pohl, Psy.D., PSY 25919
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Web. [access date: 1 June 2013]. dsm.psychiatryonline.org
Bremner, J.D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.
Joseph, S. (2014, February 8). What doesn’t kill us: The new psychology of posttraumatic growth. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us/201402/posttraumatic-growth
Keane, T.M., Marshall, A.D., and Taft, C.T. (2006). Posttraumatic stress disorder: Etiology, epidemiology, and treatment outcome. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 2, 161-197.
Kessler, R.C., Berglund, P., Delmer, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K.R., & Walters, E.E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6): 593-602.
Tull, M. (2014, August 29). How to Identify and Cope with Your PTSD Triggers. Retrieved from http://ptsd.about.com/od/selfhelp/a/CopingTriggers.htm