Whether you’ve experienced a recent sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, or witnessed something scary, you might learn to believe some common misconceptions about trauma.
Research on how the brain and body interact with our environment is relatively new and many of our individual & societal beliefs haven’t quite caught up with what we have learned so far, particularly when it comes to the impact of trauma.
I’ve put together a list here of some of the more common myths about the nature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and surviving trauma.
1. Trauma survivors are permanently broken.
When something bad happens that overwhelms our ability to cope, we may develop a series of common adaptations or “symptoms” our brain uses to try and keep us safe. These might look like feeling really anxious, having nightmares, intrusive thoughts about bad or scary things, reliving previous traumatic experiences, feeling scared, not being able to trust others, or dissociating.
Experiencing a few (or all) of these things may make you feel broken, like your brain has suddenly changed who you are. The good news is that none of these things are irreversible. If your brain learned how to develop these adaptations, it can also unlearn them.
2. Only combat soldiers get PTSD.
PTSD in its modern form was first conceptualized by doctors after World War I soldiers started returning home with a very similar set of reactions they called “shell shock”. But PTSD isn’t new and was only really recognized as a problem after thousands of white men started experiencing it in large numbers.
In reality, PTSD is a normal reaction to traumatic events and was experienced by our earliest ancestors and is experienced by other mammals.
3. Talking about it will help me get over it.
You might find this one surprising but it’s true. When we retell traumatic stories without guidance & support from a trauma specialist, we are essentially taking our brain through the whole trauma again which can further traumatize us.
Traumatic memories don’t get stored in long-term memories like other memories do. When something is stored in long-term memory it has the quality to our brains of “that was in the past – it’s over now”. When trauma memories are recalled, to the brain, it’s like it is happening right now all over again as if no time has gone by. So in telling the narrative of what happened we are putting our body and brain through the event all over again.
4. Not talking about it will help me get over it.
This myth can be really appealing to many survivors.
“If I never talk about it, it’ll be like it never happened.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. Whether or not we tell others or say out loud what happened to us, our body & brain will remember it. Many of my clients reach out to me years after experiencing a sexual assault and say some version of “I was hoping I would just get over it”. Understandably they have avoided talking about it, thinking about it, or bringing awareness to the impact of it, and yet years later the lessons the brain learned from the assault persist:
“I’m not safe” (panic attacks), “Being vulnerable isn’t safe” (avoiding intimacy), “The world isn’t safe” (agoraphobia), “When bad things happen to me, it’s my fault” (shame) or “I need to prepare for that happening again” (nightmares and intrusive thoughts).
5. Time heals all wounds.
Time heals most wounds but trauma wounds fester.
Just like physical injuries sometimes require stitches, surgery, medication, etc., psychological injuries may need interventions like EMDR, Progressive Counting, or trauma processing through Sensorimotor Psychotherapy to fully heal.
6. I’ll never be “normal”.
Ok, so this is a tricky one because what does “normal” even mean? But I think what my clients mean when they ask me, “Will I ever be normal again?” is some version of:
Can I learn to feel safe (again)?
Can I live without symptoms?
Can I define my life by something other than trauma?
And the answer is YES! The legacy of trauma can feel so overwhelming, intrusive, invasive, and just plain INTENSE. But don’t mistake intensity for treatability. A broken arm really, really hurts and it is also highly treatable. Given the right interventions (EMDR, PC, SP, etc) and the right fit with a therapist, you can heal.
7. In order to heal I’ll have to forgive.
You don’t have to forgive anyone who harmed you in order to heal. PERIOD.
If you want to work towards forgiveness, it can be a beautiful part of the journey. But let’s not mistake forgiveness as some kind of pre-requisite for healing the wounds of trauma because it isn’t. Please don’t let a well-written but misguided Instagram quote on forgiveness stop you from seeking healing because you aren’t interested in forgiving.
I hope this has been helpful to you! My goal in dispelling these myths is to help you take a step closer to your recovery and overcome unnecessary barrier to treatment. If you have questions about any of these or want to add to the list, please send me an email. I welcome hearing from you!