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Changing the Dialogue on PTSD: A Perspective

As a therapist, when I hear someone described as having a “disorder” I often cringe because that word has all kinds of baggage and implications that comes with it. The experience of posttraumatic stress reactions (eg: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder, Dissociative Disorders, etc) are considered mental illnesses, and people with mental illness often unfairly suffer with the stigma of there being something wrong with them: the fear, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the constantly being on edge and on guard, the anxiety, the suicidal thoughts, the feelings of disconnectedness—all of which can lead to others (and themselves) believing they’re weak, they’re broken, they’re flawed, and so on.

Posttraumatic Stress Reactions: The Brain Is Just Trying To Do Its Job

The stress reactions following something terrible happening to a person does not mean that something is inherently wrong with that person. Our brain is hardwired to protect us. In a posttraumatic response the brain keeps us on high alert waiting for the next sign of danger, keeping us ready to respond. These reactions are intended to keep us safe, to survive. However, this readiness after being exposed to a serious trauma, especially after a series of traumas, is like a switch in the brain that can stay in the “on” position, even when the actual danger has passed. The challenge becomes how do you turn the switch to “off,” or at least, not have it on all of the time?

There’s Nothing Wrong With You; Something Wrong Happened To You.

No one wants to think of themselves as weak or flawed, and if reaching out for help in turning the switch to “off” is a sign of weakness, then no wonder so many people still avoid seeking help! In recent years awareness campaigns have led to a lot of efforts to destigmatize the experience of PTSD, and while many of us acknowledge that knowing your limits and reaching out for help is actually a sign of strength, PTSD is still too frequently looked at as a sign of someone being flawed- as there is something wrong with them. Therein lies the internal contradiction for many people: the belief that it might be a sign of strength to seek help, but there must be something wrong with you to need the help in the first place! Something wrong happened that turned on the self-defense mechanism, and now some help may be needed to turn those back off. Why is this need for help seen as weak?

Changing The Dialogue

Fortunately, not every person’s story and experience with a posttraumatic stress reaction is negative and stigmatized, but by changing how we talk about the experience of PTSD, we can continue to help change how more and more people view themselves in relationship to posttraumatic stress reactions and the decision to seek help. For my part, instead of my saying that someone has a posttraumatic stress disorder, I prefer to say that someone is experiencing a posttraumatic stress reaction. It’s a subtle language shift, but it’s my way of trying to acknowledge what a person is experiencing but without the baggage that a word like “disorder” brings up. What else do you think can be done to change the dialogue and public perception of posttraumatic stress reactions?

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