What are some of the most common myths and facts surrounding posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Let’s find out.

Myth: Everyone who experiences a life-threatening event will develop PTSD

Actually, most people who are exposed to qualifying events will not get PTSD at all, and many see a natural decrease in symptoms over the months following an incident. The number of people who receive a diagnosis after a PTSD-level event ranges from less than 10 percent of individuals after more than 12 months of exposure to general trauma to 37% of people exposed to intentional trauma (an attack as opposed to an accident or natural disaster).

Myth: Only people who are weak get PTSD

It’s not really clear why some people get PTSD and others don’t. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with it than men are, however women are more likely to be diagnosed with many mental disorders because they are more likely to seek help, and therefore receive a diagnosis. People who are exposed to interpersonal trauma, such as sexual assault or warfare, are more likely to have PTSD symptoms than survivors of accidents or natural disasters. Social support is also important to trauma resilience. None of these factors have anything to do with inner strength though. In fact, it’s possible that an especially strong defense symptom is the culprit.

Myth: After a certain amount of time, I should be over my trauma

Trauma, by its nature, hangs around. And sometimes a person can be going along just fine but something triggers the memories and they find themselves plagued by symptoms. Also, as people age activity that keeps long term memory shelved away from the rest of the brain begins to decrease, exposing the individual to more and more of their older memories. If some of these are trauma memories, they may find themselves overwhelmed by things that didn’t bother them for decades.

Myth: My trauma was so long ago that it’s too late to do anything about it

The good news is that it’s never too late to address your trauma. In fact, most of my clients are middle-age survivors of childhood sexual abuse. There are a lot of reasons that someone would wait to get treatment, but the decades separating them from their trauma are not an obstacle at all. In fact, in some ways it is easier treating this group than individuals whose event was less than a year ago — much of their identity around the trauma has been settled, and to some degree so has the meaning of the event in their lives.

Myth: I should be able to handle this myself

Often it takes more strength to get help than to struggle on alone, particularly for certain groups. Examples of people who may be especially reluctant to reach out are men, who’ve been conditioned by our culture to not express feelings and be vulnerable, marginalized populations who have a more difficult time finding someone who can relate to them, and those who have been burned by clinicians in the past. Getting help does not mean that you’re crazy or that you’ll always need help or that you failed in coping alone.

Myth: I feel so anxious, I just need to process this trauma and then I’ll be fine

Often, by the time that someone gets help, they are incredibly anxious to purge the memory and be done with it. And while that is a crucial step, it is not the only step that takes place. The treatment protocol agreed upon by the leading bodies of trauma research and treatment has three phases:

  • Safety and coping
  • Review of trauma memories (the processing piece)
  • Integration

Depending on the severity of the trauma experience and the symptoms, the first phase can range from a few sessions (for single incident trauma in an otherwise highly functioning individual) to a year or more (for a survivor with years of complex trauma and severe dissociative symptoms). Talk with your trauma therapist about where you are in your treatment and what you can expect. While it’s not always possible to give an exact timeline, your therapist should be able to tell you how she thinks you’re doing and how you both will know that you are ready, such as what skills need to be developed before moving forward.

Myth: If I can’t remember the abuse, I won’t be able to process the trauma

There are actually several therapies, including evidence-based ones that do not rely on a coherent memory to process the trauma. The field is recognizing more and more that trauma is stored in the body and that trauma can by processed by helping the survivor connect with what their body is feeling.

I was at an EMDR training last year where the instructor shared a case study. Her client was processing memories of being locked in a small dark space for long periods of time as a small child. The client’s trauma memories were void of sight and sound. There was no coherent story. However, the client could remember the terror, and it was still present in the body. By connecting with the feelings, they were able to process out the trauma and the client ceased having PTSD symptoms.