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An Expert Debunks 5 Myths About PTSD That You Might Not Know

When we think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), we might only think of extremities like war and other near-death experiences, but PTSD can present itself under a variety of circumstances. Debunking myths that perpetuate inaccurate, harmful ideas about PTSD is the first step toward learning how we can better support those suffering from PTSD. 

Before getting into it, if you’re not familiar with what PTSD is, psychiatrist Dr. Kristen Thompson defines it as “a series of symptoms that happen after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event that threatened physical injury, sexual violence, or death.” Some glaring symptoms of a person experiencing PTSD, she noted, can include “intrusive memories or flashbacks, avoidance of certain places or people related to the traumatic event, and physical responses that mimic panic attacks.” 

PTSD also shows up differently through the generations; significant, historical events and technological advancements contribute toward the way PTSD can holistically present itself. As Dr. Thompson explains, “Whereas older generations tend to think of PTSD in the context of flashbacks for a Vietnam War veteran, Gen Z folks now face PTSD exposure through events witnessed online and through social media.” Given recently prevalent events like school shootings, cyberbullying, or the retraction of autonomous and civil rights, these kinds of events — covert or not — can lend themselves to the development of PTSD in Gen Z

MYTH #1: PTSD ONLY AFFECTS PEOPLE WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED VIOLENCE.

“In reality,” Dr. Thompson states, “the threat of potential violence or injury is enough to trigger symptoms.” 

Not everyone with PTSD has been through a traumatic event. Sometimes, simply learning that a friend or a close relative experienced trauma can cause PTSD to develop; hearing a close friend speak on their sexual assault, for instance, can instill pervasive fear, especially while trying to console or assist them in their recovery process. 

MYTH #2: PTSD SYMPTOMS ARE IMMEDIATE.

The course of PTSD varies from person to person, because while some people can recover within 6 months, others may experience symptoms for a year or longer. Everyone is different, especially when some have co-occurring disorders like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or neurodivergent disorders. “While symptoms usually begin within 3 months after the event, sometimes they emerge later,” Dr. Thompson shares. 

MYTH #3: ONLY ADULTS EXPERIENCE PTSD.

Children and teens are especially sensitive and can have intense emotional reactions to traumatic events. Their symptoms, however, might differ from how adults experience PTSD. Children younger than six years old often show signs of PTSD by forgetting how to talk or being unable to talk, wetting the bed, or acting out the traumatic event during play. 

“Some may wrongly assume that PTSD is only experienced in adulthood, whereas children and teens can also experience PTSD,” Dr. Thompson clarifies. 

Older children and teens, on the other hand, will display symptoms that are usually seen in adults, though an additional symptom may be that they develop self-destructive behaviors

MYTH #4: PTSD DOESN’T GO AWAY.

Another myth revolves around the idea that PTSD lasts forever. “Many people, especially those who have addressed the trauma through effective therapy, can achieve remission and recovery from PTSD symptoms,” Dr. Thompson shares. 

While there are people whose PTSD is ongoing, there are many people who have successfully recovered. When we pose the idea that PTSD is an obstacle no one can beat, then it discourages those who suffer from PTSD and normalizes the idea that recuperation is impossible when that’s not the case. 

The circulation of these kinds of myths only lead to more harm, as they can disrupt the process of understanding and gaining control of such symptoms and eventually lead to inaccurate self-diagnoses, patients failing to identify their symptoms properly, or simply not being able to receive help. On the flip side, some patients might be wrongly diagnosed. 

For example, recently, a social media post claimed that sleeping with “dinosaur arms” is a symptom of PTSD, when in actuality, it’s not the case by any medical standards. When false claims surrounding PTSD reach bigger audiences, the chance of normalizing them heightens, leading to an abundance of misconceptions and stigmas. 

Myth #5: You have to go through PTSD alone.

The first step toward working through PTSD begins with seeking an evaluation from a trained mental health professional, as Dr. Thompson stresses. “Often, people with PTSD can feel relief by beginning the process of getting help. And those with PTSD should also know that a proper diagnosis does not require a retelling of the entire traumatic event, but a discussion of the symptoms as a result.” Retelling the event can be re-triggering for many, so it’s important people know they don’t have to relive it to seek help. 

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

Sofia is a third-year Writing & Literature major at UCSB. In her free time, she enjoys watching anime, playing video games, and drinking chai tea.