Only soldiers, veterans, and those in the line of fire suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Or, at least, that’s the picture presented to us through a lack of understanding or appreciation of individual experiences, and the blurry lines of cinematic stories.
We are also led to believe that PTSD is not real, that a person should move on regardless of the trauma they have suffered, and that a person with PTSD will always be aggressive or violent and dangerous to rub shoulders. Limiting PTSD to the war-torn idea of shellshock or combat fatigue denies the reality of trauma and the impact this kind of intense distress can have on a person’s life. Although war veterans are obviously at an increased risk of experiencing traumatic and violent events, trauma can be experienced in many ways and have a difficult impact on a person’s life. There remains a limited understanding of PTSD as a society. This mental health condition remains stigmatized, misinterpreted and told with an underlying theme of myths and misconceptions.
To break down barriers and better understand PTSD, Jillian Doyle, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Fellow of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), balances fact with fiction.
1) Myth – Trauma will always lead to PTSD
“Relatively few people who experience trauma will develop PTSD,” confirms Doyle. We experience trauma, pain, suffering, and distress at varying levels throughout our lives, but the majority of these experiences will not lead to PTSD. Various factors will determine the severity of the trauma reaction. For example, low self-esteem, poor relationships with social groups, and repeated trauma will increase the risk of PTSD.
“Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, but the prevalence of PTSD in the Irish population is estimated to be 5%,” says Doyle. “People can experience traumatic events that push them into their fight or flight system and cause them to experience some of the symptoms of PTSD, but these symptoms go away over time, in some cases with the help of a therapist, but without the need for a specific trauma-focused intervention.Other people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing one or more traumatic events in their lifetime.
Doyle reiterates that “the question of whether a traumatic event develops into PTSD is not based solely on the event but on an interplay between the event and the unique strengths and vulnerabilities of the person who experienced the event. trauma and the supports that person has received in their life, both past and present Sometimes two people may have experienced the exact same event and one person continues to develop PTSD while the other does not. not.
2) Myth – PTSD will go away over time
It is often believed that PTSD will occur immediately after a person experiences a traumatic event. However, this is not always the case and symptoms of PTSD can appear months after an event. Similarly, a person may not recognize symptoms of anxiety, stress, nightmares, and flashbacks as indicative of PTSD, delaying diagnosis.
“Like most mental health issues, PTSD symptoms can fluctuate over time depending on what’s going on in a person’s life and how much stress they’re under,” says Doyle. “PTSD is usually not diagnosed until three months after an event occurs. Prior to this, clinicians take a wait-and-support approach, as sometimes some of the distressing symptoms go away on their own. If a person continues to experience symptoms of PTSD after three months and these symptoms persist beyond one month, a diagnosis of PTSD may be warranted.
The delay in symptom recognition may be related to how the brain stores memories after a traumatic or terrifying event. Memories are hidden and difficult to process or recall as a result.
“Sometimes life events happen that could trigger symptoms of PTSD that a person thought were resolved,” says Doyle. “For example, if a woman had a traumatic childbirth in her first pregnancy, she may experience symptoms of PTSD in a subsequent pregnancy. Most people who meet the criteria for PTSD will benefit from contact with a therapist with specialized training in this area. PTSD can be an overwhelming experience and the symptoms are very real and frightening, so it is important that people with this condition are supported to seek help.
3) Myth — People with PTSD have trouble functioning
PTSD can be significantly debilitating with varying symptoms that can be particularly persistent. It may seem that the experience of PTSD will go on forever with feelings of fear and threat taking over a person’s life. However, this does not mean that a person will have difficulty functioning.
“People with PTSD experience a number of difficult and distressing symptoms,” Doyle explains, “such as reliving the event, avoiding anything to do with the event, high levels of fight or flight in the body, or feeling disconnected from themselves and others.Naturally, these symptoms can greatly affect a person’s quality of life and can sometimes impact their ability to engage in certain activities.
Doyle reiterates that on the severe end of the PTSD spectrum, people can feel “very overwhelmed by their experiences and it makes it harder to function.” However, most people with PTSD go about their daily lives – they have jobs, relationships, and hobbies.
Adjusting to life after a traumatic event and getting the right support to deal with PTSD symptoms will help a person adapt, change, and navigate their life.
“One of the conversations I have with service users when I first meet them is about the coping mechanisms, helpful and unhelpful, that they have developed to deal with their emotions and symptoms of trauma,” explains Doyle. “It’s important to help people think about the impact of their security strategies on their lives. Often people seek treatment when the cost of their security strategies becomes too high. With the right evidence-based treatment, PTSD can be resolved and a person can be free to return to life without fear.
Treatment options include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), talk therapies, medications, and group therapies. Treatment can greatly improve a person’s symptoms and quality of life after trauma.