It is a common misconception that symptoms of PTSD appear immediately after injury. In reality, this fallacy couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Research to date tends to generally say that symptoms will appear within 3 months of the trauma. Don’t confound that as, “I will have all symptoms to meet PTSD within 3 months.” That’s not what I am saying, nor what present research discusses. This precise data is cited by the National Institute of Mental Health.
There is no single important answer to when and when symptoms appear or how many will show up. The most common sentiment in the field is that an individual may have one or more symptoms within 3 months. Think about it like this — you may lose sleep instantaneously, have terrible dreams. That’s one symptom, and it would be natural to experience sleeplessness and nightmares after experiencing injury. That subsides, then you may find that you isolate yourself a month after — another symptom. You may have a really difficult week at work, then explode at someone. It happened this once, some months after your traumatic event, although you have never done that before after a tough week. This is another symptom.
All of the preceding are single, isolated symptoms of PTSD. You aren’t experiencing those symptoms simultaneously. You experience them as isolated, even seemingly dissonant, occasions. You may experience them concurrently, yet they are still a just three symptoms of many. This is what most research points to in relation to having symptoms within the first 3 months after your stabbing exposure.
Without experiencing the symptoms required to meet with analysis having PTSD is not all that different –on a much smaller scale — from how we experience viral infections. You experience the symptoms the following weekend, incubate it for 5 days with no symptoms, and may contract a virus from your child on a Sunday. You carried the virus and were contagious, but how could you possibly understand? Maybe you felt a bit of a sore throat as the week had some sniffles or wore on, but it is the correct time of year. It doesn’t mean you did not have a virus, just that you didn’t match with the telltale signs you’d need to seek help and trauma psychology later get treatment.
On a larger scale, how about sufferers of dementia? Many individuals with dementia experience a few symptoms for months or even years before realizing there is a serious issue going on. They become disoriented or lose their balance. If they are of a certain age, stumbling here and there or sometimes being forgetful does not set off any alarm bells, the same way that being apprehensive or on guard following trauma is a perfectly non-pathological reaction to recently experiencing trauma. It frequently takes more time, and definitely requires more symptoms before detecting you have a long-term issue, even if you do in fact have the disease to be ticked off.
To further demonstrate the variability for when symptoms begin, MyPTSD has polled this exact question for 9 years. Those who’ve answered, our member survey results, show that 31% experience symptoms in the first three months, with 49% taking longer than 12 months.
Our results show a much more comprehensive result set taken over 9 years at the time of writing this article. If MyPTSD made a single statement, as other important sources state and the NIMH, then our view would be that nearly all people take longer than 12 months to experience symptoms.
This view aligns with resilience data (also cited by NIMH) that the majority of people exposed to trauma don’t develop PTSD, let alone symptoms that would be viewed as a mental health state. PTSD from just one event is considerably more infrequent than PTSD from compounded traumatic occasions throughout life.
In summary, the myth that PTSD appears following a traumatic event has little basis in reality. Sufferers can go years, even decades, without developing full blown PTSD. The best thing trauma survivors can do is to get help as quickly as possible and build a community around themselves of supportive, compassionate people that are both comprehension and trustworthy. This foundation of support will function as a resiliency tool, and it can be priceless in helping those who experience injury return to a sense of normalcy. The honesty of others can serve as a check against uncharacteristic and irrational behavior — an extra set of eyes to surveil the survivor for indications of a difficulty that is growing. Additionally, seeking a professional’s help following trauma has benefits that are manifold and obvious, whether to help mitigate developing symptoms with medications or just serve as a guide to return to a secure, healthy lifestyle post-trauma.