Even though health professionals have recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for decades, many misconceptions, and resulting barriers to help-seeking, surround this diagnosis. This article specifically focuses on combating three of the misconceptions to better help individuals seeking help for PTSD. By combatting these misconceptions, more people who experience it will hopefully get the support they deserve to start their healing journey.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a well-known mental health disorder caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. The American Medical Association formally recognized PTSD as a diagnosable condition in 1980; however, before this date, the medical community recognized the symptoms of PTSD but almost exclusively associated them with war veterans.
While this strong association still stands, with time, researchers and practitioners have identified other traumatic situations that can cause PTSD. For instance, survivors of car accidents, natural disasters, rape, and other forms of abuse can also develop PTSD.
The Mayo Clinic describes the 4 most prevalent symptoms of PTSD as follows:
- Intrusive memories (such as experiencing flashbacks)
- Negative changes in mood and thinking (such as experiencing severe anxiety)
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Combat the socially constructed limits on who can experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and what can cause it.
As our understanding of PTSD broadens in scope, we can play a role in creating a more inclusive environment for individuals seeking help. While doctors and therapists are qualified to diagnose and treat this condition, we, as a society, can start by understanding that many other traumas besides war can also trigger PTSD.
Importantly, abuse at any point in an individual’s life can trigger PTSD. Additionally, “abuse” encompasses a wide range of traumatic actions. Sexual, emotional, verbal, psychological, and financial abuse, or a combination of these tactics used by the abuser to manipulate or gain control in a relationship, constitute abuse. Further, intimate partners, relatives, friends, coworkers, or strangers can perpetrate abuse. People of all ages and with different experiences can suffer abuse-induced PTSD.
However, we often feel quicker to associate people who have experienced rape or childhood abuse with PTSD than an individual who has spent many years in an abusive relationship. Why is this so? My experience working at Bede, a domestic abuse support agency, led me to two conclusions. First, our society seems to “rank” explicit physical and sexual abuse more seriously than other forms of abuse. Additionally, there is (conscious and unconscious) victim-blaming on individuals who were abused as children or stay in abusive relationships later in life.
Combat “hierarchies of abuse” and victim-blaming that invalidate individuals’ experiences with abuse and the associated PTSD many survivors experience.
While working at Bede, my coworkers and supervisors taught me to recognize verbal, emotional, and financial abuse as just as damaging and triggering as other kinds of abuse; however, our society seems to focus on physical violence and place this form of abuse at the top of a conceived “hierarchy of abuse.”
“Ranking” certain types of abuse as more traumatic than others invalidates the trauma experienced by those who suffer “less-traumatic” abuse. It is not conducive (instead, it is isolating and triggering) to try to heal in an environment that does not recognize all forms of abuse as valid. Further, society can even blame those experiencing abuse. For example, some individuals believe that it is a victim’s fault for not leaving an abusive relationship sooner.
In reality, no trauma is “worse” than another: every person reacts differently to trauma, and any type of abuse can and does trigger PTSD. Additionally, experiencing abuse is never the victim’s fault. Leaving an abusive environment, especially with long-term and domestic abuse, is difficult, confusing, and life-threatening.
Pushing back on these harmful social norms will help validate the trauma and resulting symptoms of those experiencing any type of abuse.
Combat the belief that all experiences of PTSD are similar
Recently, psychologists and psychiatrists alike found that survivors of long-term abuse often experience symptoms of PTSD plus additional symptoms. With further research into this trend, many practitioners adopted a new classification of PTSD: Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). Specifically, childhood abuse and long-term relational abuse trigger C-PTSD.
In a recent Psychology Today article, the author describes C-PTSD as a “shame-based disorder,” whereas PTSD is fear-based. Those experiencing long-term abuse often blame themselves for the abuse and feel deep shame, resulting in heightened health effects. Specifically, the additional symptoms characterized by C-PTSD include the following symptoms:
- Lack of emotional regulation
- Changes in consciousness
- Negative self-perception
- Difficulty with relationships
- Distorted perceptions of the abuser
- Loss of systems of meaning
Experiencing PTSD can feel debilitating, and the added symptoms of C-PTSD make the fight more challenging. Those suffering from it may not feel or act like themselves due to feelings of shame, helplessness, and anxiety.
As a society, we can help change the constricted definition of PTSD by trusting the diagnosis of C-PTSD. Additionally, we must understand the range of debilitating symptoms survivors of trauma may battle. It is important to break down our cookie-cutter conception of PTSD to include a large range of symptoms and accept both diagnoses.
While further research is needed to learn more about the neurological triggers and effects of both of these disorders, the symptoms are undeniable, and treatment is available. Mental health practitioners can properly diagnose and treat both disorders, helping to manage and reduce the symptoms with therapy techniques and/or medication.
Together, combating these misconceptions will help break down barriers to seeking help and change the way we approach survivors experiencing PTSD and C-PTSD.
There are many avenues for help-seeking if you believe that you may be experiencing abuse or having symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, or know someone who is. Medical professionals and digital resources can kick start you or your loved one’s journey towards healing. You are not alone.
- Call 911 in an immediate crisis.
- The National Center for PTSD provides emergency and long-term resources for individuals experiencing PTSD or C-PTSD, or who think they may be.
- Out of the Storm is an organization dedicated to supporting adults who suffer from C-PTSD. On their website linked above, you can find support resources, including books, blogs, treatment options, and contact information tailored to survivors battling C-PTSD.
- Setting up a consultation with a doctor and/or therapist who specializes in PTSD or C-PTSD can help you receive a diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment plan. See this page for helpful tips on accessing treatment, including services through your general practitioner, private therapists, and local trauma service organizations.
The resources below are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish), or text TalkWithUs for English or Hablanos for Spanish to 66746. Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico can text Hablanos to 1-787-339-2663.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish, or Lifeline Crisis Chat.
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or Online Chat.
- The Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 TTY Instructions.
- National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4AChild (1-800-422-4453) or text 1-800-422-4453.
- Veteran’s Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Chat or text: 8388255.