7 Myths (and 1 Big Fact) About PTSD

In Part 1 of this series, you learned the 5 symptoms of PTSD.  This week, the Savvy Psychologist talks about healing PTSD and the stigma that can get in the way, with a special emphasis on veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #17

Last week, in Part 1 of this series, we covered the 5 symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  This week, we’ll talk about healing from PTSD and the stigma that can get in the way, with a special emphasis on new veterans.  We’ll cover 7 misconceptions about PTSD and one big truth..

The idea for this series on PTSD comes from listener Phoebe Gavin of New York City.  In addition to being an Iraq War veteran, Phoebe belongs to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest non-profit, non-partisan association for new veterans.  Thank you, Phoebe, and all your fellow veterans, for your service. 

While a 2011 Pew Research Center report revealed that a majority of Americans are apathetic or disapproving of the post-9/11 wars the military fought or is fighting, at the same time, Americans simultaneously feel “pride, gratitude, and confidence” towards the more than 2.6 million troops who have served in combat zones since 9/11. More than 90% are proud of the troops and about 75% have thanked a vet.  And no matter your politics, I think we can all get behind less judgment and better health for veterans. 

Almost 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets treated through the VA system are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  But the stigma of having a disorder keeps many vets from seeking treatment, increases a sense of isolation, and perpetuates sensationalized media images.  Worse, if left untreated, PTSD increases the risk for depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.

See also: 5 Signs of PTSD


So, to help lift the stigma, here are 7 myths about PTSD, refuted:

Myth #1:  PTSD makes you violent and dangerous

Most media accounts of the recent Fort Hood shooting emphasize that Specialist Ivan Lopez was being evaluated for PTSD.  Unfortunately, this propagates the falsehood that individuals with PTSD can snap at any time or go on Rambo-like rampages.  Every time the media links PTSD or vets with violence, more vets push their struggles underground, try to go it alone, and don’t seek help.

As we learned in last week's episode, 5 Signs of PTSD, the disorder includes hyperarousal, a group of symptoms that includes a tendency to be angry, irritable, on edge, and easily startled, which seems like a recipe for violence.  However, it’s not an accurate picture.  An important 2014 study followed over 1,000 veterans from all 50 states and all military branches for a year.  Vets with PTSD who didn't abuse alcohol didn’t have any higher risk of violence than vets with neither of those two difficulties. 

The researchers concluded that when it comes to violence, we shouldn’t focus on PTSD alone, but instead on the cumulative effects of factors that reveal a more complex story: alcohol, history of violence before deployment, greater combat exposure, and not having enough money to cover basic needs after returning home.  And even with all the risk factors, there’s no surefire recipe for violence; instead, the accumulation of stresses and vulnerabilities helps pinpoint who might need help, not who might be a danger.

Sadly, if anyone gets hurt, it’s most likely to be the person with PTSD himself or herself.  The incidence of suicide in the Army has increased over the past several years, moving from below to above the rate of the general population.  Indeed, of all suicides in the U.S., 1 in 5 is a veteran. 

Myth #2:  It’s OK to make small talk about traumatic experiences

At welcome home parties, on first dates, and even at job interviews, a question commonly posed to new vets is “Did you kill anyone?” or worse, “How many people did you get to kill?”  While it’s completely understandable to be curious, taking another human’s life is an extremely serious and personal experience, not a conversation to strike up as small talk or for entertainment.  So if you’re standing around the barbecue grill, politely squash your impulse to ask. 

Later, if you know the vet well and you’re willing to listen—really listen—to the answer, you can ask, preferably one-on-one, if they’d be willing to talk about their deployment.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.