Trauma, an oft-used term in “therapy speak” and social media, remains one of the most serious yet misunderstood psychological experiences. As a psychiatrist specializing in trauma and PTSD, I work with many survivors who have misconceptions that can lead them to minimize their experiences or not seek effective help. Here are some of the most common myths about trauma:
Many still see trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms as largely reserved to combat veterans. However, the traumas that are most likely to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are actually rape and intimate partner violence, which disproportionately affect women. Additionally, emotional and verbal abuse also count. Trauma is defined as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence—either by directly or indirectly experiencing it. Trauma is not solely based on physical harm inflicted but also the threat of such harm or repeated exposure to details about it. Many individuals discount their experiences, thinking they haven't been affected "enough." The reality is that trauma is by nature deeply multifaceted, extending beyond clear-cut physical incidents.
People's reactions to trauma are as diverse as their personalities. Immediate reactions can range from being jumpy and easily startled and exhibiting intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event. Some victims might seem outwardly unaffected early on, with internal struggles manifesting days, months, or even years after their trauma. There’s no universal way in which post-traumatic stress manifests, and the variability in reactions underscores the importance of accessing personalized support.
Open conversation can be therapeutic, but it's not the answer for everyone, especially not immediately. While some find solace in sharing their story, others might need more time to process their experience internally. It's crucial to approach survivors with sensitivity and allow them to choose when and how they want to discuss their trauma, understanding that healing can't be rushed.
There's a mistaken notion that resilience leads to a speedy post-trauma recovery. This myth only adds unnecessary pressure onto survivors, making them feel inadequate for not "bouncing back" fast enough. It can also minimize the profound effect that the trauma has had on them. Each individual's healing journey is unique. The most important thing is that a victim makes space for processing, understanding, and rebuilding so that they can sustain lasting recovery, rather than pretending to be “better” when it's needed. Recognizing this shifts the paradigm around stereotypes about trauma and enables a more profound understanding.
Trauma, without a doubt, leaves an indelible mark. But it doesn't permanently define a person’s life. Though some trauma survivors will go on to develop symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of triggers and negative self-talk, the good news is that PTSD is very treatable. In fact, the best-researched PTSD therapies, like Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE), take only 8-12 therapy sessions to complete and usually lead to permanent recovery. With evolving therapeutic methodologies and a supportive environment, these evidence-based therapies are among the many tools increasingly accessible to those seeking to move beyond their traumatic experiences.
Demystifying trauma is a collective responsibility amongst us all. By understanding the complex nature of trauma, we can approach those who’ve experienced it with empathy and devoid of preconceived notions. In doing so, society can move closer to creating more nurturing spaces where survivors feel genuinely seen, heard, and supported.
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