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Dispelling Myths and Common Misunderstandings of PTSD

Dr. Center

Dr. Center

As a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I am passionate about dispelling myths and common misunderstandings I hear about PTSD and its treatment. Here are some of the most frequent misconceptions I hear in my practice:

MYTH: Any stressful event in a person’s life, such a divorce or a death, can lead to PTSD.
FACT:  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed (DSM5) defines PTSD by certain criteria, including trauma. Trauma is a significant factor in the diagnosis of PTSD and is defined as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence…” While people may experience psychological distress after a stressful event, PTSD may not always be the best diagnosis for the condition.

Why is this important?
In a successful treatment program, a clinician skilled in evidence-based practices will want to accurately determine the diagnosis. Cohen Veterans Network clinicians are trained to use several robust PTSD treatments to help our clients; however, they only work if the client is actually experiencing PTSD.

MYTH: If a person is exposed to death, violence, sexual assault, or combat that person WILL develop PTSD.
FACT: The majority of people who experience a traumatic event in their lifetime DO NOT go on to develop PTSD. While it is common to experience short-term symptoms (such as anxiety, nightmares, and/or social withdrawal), the overwhelming majority of people will return to their regular level of functioning within a few weeks to a few months.

Why is this important?
This is great news! People as a whole are resilient! The human system naturally tries to restore itself. One of the most highly regarded theories of PTSD development is called Emotional Processing Theory. It suggests that after a traumatic event, people experience a natural recovery process by engaging in their regular daily activities. They learn that some of the initial associations, situational factors, and beliefs that result from the traumatic event, are not true.

For example, if I am in a car accident caused by a driver in a green car, I may initially believe that all green cars are dangerous and that there is something wrong with me. As a result, I may avoid green cars at all costs. However, if I continue to drive past green cars on a daily basis, my brain will relearn that the color of the car is not related to its dangerousness and I am not incompetent or “crazy” for fearing them.

When people develop PTSD, it is often due to a disruption in their natural processing of the event, typically through avoidance.

By Kristy Center, Ph.D., lead clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Dr. Center specializes in providing clinical interventions and research in assessment and treatment for veterans with PTSD and co-occurring mental health conditions.
This is part one of two part blog series during PTSD Awareness Month. Part two will run next week.