I believe people can always find opportunities to continue learn and grow throughout life. As a therapist, I am consistently surprised and pleased at what my clients teach me. As with any profession, there are the topics you learn about through schooling and reading, and there are professional and life lessons learned through lived experience. I have noticed when working with people processing trauma and when talking about what I do for a living with others, there are a variety of myths floating around. Many having to do with counseling in general, but I’ll save that for a different blog. When people think about trauma, there can be preconceived notions that get in the way of seeking or staying in treatment. The following are some (not all) basic myths regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that I have come across in my work with people.
1. PTSD is a diagnosis for people in the military.
Many people think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a mental illness, disorder, or injury only occurring within a certain population of people, when, in fact, PTSD can be the result of a traumatic event happening to anyone.
2. Once you have PTSD it will never go away.
Some people struggle with PTSD and it seems to follow them their entire lives. However, that is not the norm. Many people seek treatment from professionals to help them through these symptoms and go on to live a fulfilling life.
3. You can’t get PTSD unless you were the person the trauma happened to.
People can be traumatized by being witness to someone else’s trauma. PTSD can occur any time there is a perceived threat to life and/or safety. This means if you feel your life or safety were in danger, AND/OR if you are witness to someone else’s life or safety being in danger. This includes traumas such as sexual assault and abuse.
4. If I had PTSD I would know it.
Some people may be struggling with PTSD and not know it. This could be due to a variety of reasons. Many people find themselves struggling with day to day activities that they were able to do before the trauma. If trauma happens in childhood, it can sometimes become a way of life, and symptoms they may be experiencing feel “normal” to them. Trauma symptoms can sometimes be mislabeled as ADHD, depression, and anxiety, among others. While it is very common to struggle with multiple mental health issues when dealing with trauma, it is important that trauma is assessed appropriately so that treatment has a better chance at being effective. It can be helpful to talk with a professional and have an assessment done to help determine the effects of traumatic experiences.
5. People with PTSD are weak. They just couldn’t handle what happened.
PTSD can happen to ANYONE, and no one is “immune” to getting stuck in trauma. It is not the trauma itself that causes PTSD. How people are thinking about the trauma (how they make sense
of it) is the root cause of PTSD. The thoughts that may be keeping people stuck are sometimes hard to identify and may be difficult to understand. This is where professional help can be of assistance. Many times, people struggle with feelings of blame, shame, and guilt, just to name a few.
6. Trauma work will take FOREVER
There are many different treatment models used to help process trauma successfully. Some of these models are as short as 12 sessions or less. This largely depends on the type of treatment one may be receiving. Treatment can often take longer than 12 sessions, and each individual is different. There are many factors that can be a part of your recovery, so it is important to talk to your therapist about the length and course of treatment throughout therapy.
7. I tried with a therapist and it didn’t work. There’s no hope/help for me.
Have you ever had a teacher you just didn’t jive with? Maybe you could never quite understand the way they taught, maybe you thought they didn’t like you, maybe you thought you were just bad at that particular subject /grade. What about how you choose your doctor? Have you ever met one and after meeting thought “Ugh, I don’t want to go back to that doctor ever again!” What about doctors or teachers you got along really well with and thought “This person gets me!” Finding a therapist is similar in that there may be some therapist’s out there you don’t click with or don’t feel comfortable talking to. I cannot stress this next sentence enough: Don’t give up on your search for the right fit for you! It can be helpful to know a little bit about who you think would be a good fit, but this is not a requirement. Do your best to give feedback when appropriate, letting them know if you like a certain part of treatment or if you didn’t like something that was said/done in session. A good therapist will welcome your feedback and try their best to use it to help tailor sessions if applicable, or, if needed, refer you to another provider that might be a better fit.
8. There’s no way I can process my trauma if I can’t remember all of it.
When someone experiences trauma they use the part of their brain that tells them to “Fight, Flight, or Freeze”. When people are functioning in this part of their brain it can be very difficult to remember some parts of the trauma. Successful coping can still occur even if you can’t remember every detail about what happened.
9. The best way to get over a trauma is to not think about it.
Ahh, the old “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” method. This is formally called avoidance. Avoidance is one of the 4 main clusters of trauma symptoms, and feels very natural to many people. When people avoid feelings and thoughts regarding their trauma they often feel emotionally numb (avoiding negative feelings also blocks out positive feelings), have nightmares, and/or struggle with somatic symptoms (body aches and pains that were not there before the trauma or worse after trauma occurred). This is your body trying to tell you “Hey! Something happened!”
10. Once you process/deal with PTSD, it never comes back.
When someone has learned how to successfully cope with trauma symptoms they may never have the same issue again. It is also completely normal to have processed and feel like trauma has been resolved, only to have it come up again. There are many reasons this can happen, but the most common I have come across is a different trauma occurring. When those same feelings are triggered by an additional trauma, other past traumas can be triggered as well. This is very normal, albeit frustrating for the person it is happening to. This does not mean all the previous work has been undone or that treatment will be harder/longer this time. This is a normal response to a traumatic event, and a professional can help you sort through these feelings and symptoms.
If, after reading this, you realize you or someone close to you might be struggling with the effects of trauma, please know there is help available. There are many specialized and trained therapists ready to help.
Dianna Gulick, Licensed Mental Health Counselor.