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Five Common Misconceptions About Trauma

Five Common Misconceptions About Trauma

Trauma is one of the most common drivers of addictive behavior. Although identifying trauma can be complicated--as we’ll see--research suggests it plays a major role in developing substance use disorders. For example, one study found that 66% of women with an opioid use disorder also reported sexual abuse and various studies have found that between 20% and 50% of people seeking help for a substance use disorder also have symptoms of PTSD.

That’s why identifying and treating trauma is crucial for a strong recovery from a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about trauma that contribute to the stigma and prevent people from getting the help they need. The following are some common misconceptions about trauma.

1. “Trauma Is Life-Threatening”

We tend to think of trauma as something that might kill us--combat, a serious car accident, an armed robbery, and so on. However, trauma is fairly subjective. Consider two potentially traumatic events: a serious car accident and a divorce. The car accident is typically more life-threatening but a divorce can deprive you of your family, your sense of belonging, a lot of your money and security, and even your sense of self-worth. All of this might have more profound long-term consequences for your life and sense of well-being. Therefore, it’s not necessarily true that just because you haven’t been shot at, beaten, or otherwise physically threatened, that you haven’t experienced trauma.

2. “People Who Experience Trauma Usually Get PTSD”

Awareness of PTSD has gradually spread following the Vietnam War. The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 30% of Vietnam War veterans developed PTSD at some point in their lives--a really astronomical number, considering the number is estimated to be less than 20% even for Iraq War veterans. However, conditions for Vietnam veterans were especially bad.

Draftees were disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds, sometimes choosing military service to avoid prison time, they were often ordered to harm civilians or were required to harm civilians in self-defense, and they received little support upon their return home. All of these factors have been shown to increase the risk of developing PTSD. 

Among the general public, the odds that trauma will develop into PTSD are much lower. Although about 60% of men and 50% of women will experience trauma at some point in their lives, fewer than eight percent of Americans will ever develop PTSD. The severity of the trauma, a history of abuse or mental health issues, and lack of social support all increase your risk of developing PTSD following a traumatic event.

3. “Trauma Only Affects the Weak”

Given that trauma develops into PTSD only rarely, one might draw the conclusion that trauma only affects the weak. While some people are more vulnerable to trauma than others, “weakness” is not the right word for that vulnerability. As noted above, the severity of the trauma, history of mental health issues, and social support are all important factors, none of which you have much control over. A severe enough trauma will affect pretty much anyone and you have no control over a history of mental health issues. 

Research suggests that high trait neuroticism might also increase your risk of developing PTSD, as well as other mental health issues. You might even say it takes more strength for someone with high neuroticism to weather adversity and seek help than it does for someone who just isn’t too bothered by anything. Besides, the history books are full of people who did heroic things and later suffered from PTSD. Audie Murphy, for example, won literally every US military award for heroism during WWII but struggled with PTSD and alcohol use for the rest of his life. 

Furthermore, the fact that social support is a strong mitigating factor shows that we all need help sometimes, whether it’s from a therapist or from supportive friends, family, and colleagues. Your environment makes a big difference and what separates a “strong” and a “weak” person might be nothing more than the social support they enjoy. 

4. “Trauma Is Inherently Bad”

We tend to think of trauma as a bad thing. No one wants to be threatened, raped, beaten, shot at, divorced, or nearly killed in an accident. We avoid these things whenever possible. The immediate effects of these kinds of incidents are almost always bad--pain, shame, anxiety, depression, and so on. However, in the long term, it is possible to bounce back from trauma better than before.

While post-traumatic stress disorder gets most of the attention, there is also such a thing as post-traumatic growth. Just surviving a traumatic experience can be a source of strength because you feel like if you can survive that, you can survive anything. For example, many Civil Rights leaders survived assassination attempts, which only strengthened their determination.

It’s easy to imagine giving up in the face of credible death threats, but in these cases, the result was the opposite. That kind of growth is available to anyone who has experienced trauma. If you are able to learn from it, to gain a sense of purpose, to strengthen your connection to the people who are most important to you, and so on, trauma can be put to good use.

5. “You Will Suffer from Trauma for the Rest of Your Life”

The usual model of trauma is that we imagine being damaged physically or psychologically and carrying that damage the rest of our lives. It’s true that some kinds of trauma will change your life permanently, that some events leave scars. However, it doesn’t mean that you have to live less of a life. Even people who experienced childhood trauma or severe trauma can overcome it and even grow when they get the right help. There has been a lot of progress treating trauma in recent decades, which means trauma isn’t typically something that you have to suffer with for the rest of your life. 

At The Foundry, we understand that trauma plays a major role in substance use disorders. That’s why we use many different approaches to help our clients heal from trauma as part of our comprehensive approach to addiction treatment. Our methods include cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, Alpha-Stim, family therapy, and others. To learn more, call us at (844) 955-1066.

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