Understanding the Differences Between PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) and CPTSD (Complex PTSD)
The evolution from what was once known as “Shell Shock” and “Combat Fatigue” to our modern definition of PTSD is thanks to decades of painstaking clinical observation, research and treatment advancements. Part of the journey of our understanding of this condition is that PTSD is not exclusive to military veterans. Thanks to the continuing effort of researchers in the U.S. and around the world, we now have a clearer picture of what PTSD looks like and more recently, Complex PTSD. But what exactly is the difference?
PTSD stands for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a mental health disorder that anyone could develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event such as a car or work-related accident, a life-threatening health event, a natural disaster, a traumatic birth, sudden death of a spouse or child, sexual assault, or violent crime.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (psychiatry.org):
- 3.5% of the adult population in the U.S. is diagnosed with PTSD every year
- Women are twice as likely to have it than men
- There is a higher prevalence of PTSD in the non-Latinx white populations who report higher rates of PTSD than non-Latino Whites
- Not everyone who experiences a trauma will end up with PTSD
It is important to note that an individual can actually develop PTSD without having experienced trauma firsthand. Being exposed to repeated accounts of trauma could lead to PTSD. Police officers who collect victim testimony, or first responders dealing with witnesses to a mass shooting for example, could develop this disorder.
Symptoms of PTSD
There are certain symptoms that are typical of people who are suffering from this disorder:
- Intrusion symptoms – sudden memories about a traumatic event like flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive, frightening thoughts or images
- Avoidance symptoms – People who suffer from PTSD often avoid thoughts, places, feelings, situations or even sensory triggers (smells, sounds) that remind them of the trauma
- Arousal/reactivity symptoms – being in a constant state of high alert, anxious, difficulty sleeping, trouble focusing, being jumpy, irritable, or hypervigilant
- Cognition and mood symptoms – constant feelings of guilt, shame, and other negative emotions, persistent negative feelings about oneself or other people, trouble remembering parts of the traumatic event, difficulty enjoying activities they used to enjoy, and isolation from other people
How about CPTSD?
Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder might manifest itself in many of the same ways that PTSD does, but with additional features that make it more damaging to the victim:
- It is caused by ongoing trauma that lasts over a longer period of time – months or even years – as opposed to a single traumatic event
- People often develop this disorder during their childhood
- The trauma often happens in situations where a trusted authority figure (parent, coach, intimate partner) is either the perpetrator or fails to protect the victim from the trauma
CPTSD can be caused by the following:
- Sexual or Physical Abuse in childhood
- Emotional Abuse and Neglect
- Intimate partner violence
- Witnessing Domestic violence in childhood (even if the children themselves are not abused)
- Kidnapping or Torture
- Experiencing protracted war or armed conflicts
CPTSD symptoms: are they different from PTSD symptoms?
Although people who suffer from PTSD and CPTSD might experience many similar symptoms, CPTSD patients report suffering from some symptoms that might not be as prevalent in patients with PTSD. These are:
- Difficulties maintaining close relationships
- Increased suicidal thoughts and substance dependence
- Intense feelings of worthlessness, guilt and shame
- Emotional numbing and dissociation
- Physical symptoms of stress such as headaches and stomach aches
If some of the symptoms are different, is the treatment for CPTSD different than the one for PTSD?
Given these differences in symptoms and in the way PTSD and CPTSD develop, there are some distinctions in the way we treat these disorders. PTSD treatment involves trauma-focused therapies in which the patient learns to “face” the trauma by recalling it in a controlled environment and to learn that memories of the trauma are not dangerous, even though the trauma itself was. Gradual exposure to normal, safe activities without avoiding trauma triggers also allows patients to reclaim the normal parts of their lives that they have lost. CPTSD patients often go through the same type of treatment as those with PTSD but they need an additional layer of skill-building to address the interpersonal, social and emotional skills that they were never given as children:
- Emotion regulation strategies and self-care
- Creation of supportive, personal and romantic relationships
- Addressing feelings of worthlessness, shame and guilt
Can you suffer from CPTSD and PTSD at the same time?
Given the similarities of both disorders and the differences in how they’re caused, it is entirely possible to suffer from CPTSD and then develop PTSD; consider someone who witnessed domestic abuse repeatedly as a child, and years later, they happen to be in a car accident or witness a crime.
Do you think you have either CPTSD or PTSD?
If you think you suffer from either disorder or even both at the same time, it is important for you to take care of yourself and seek the help that you need and that you deserve. Treatment can help you cope with your trauma and overcome symptoms like shame, guilt, being in a constant state of alert, trouble sleeping and avoidance of situations that remind you of your trauma.
Our doctors here at Antidote Health can help you with your diagnosis and with some treatment alternatives. All you need to do is talk to us. You can consult with our doctors from the comfort of your own living room and we can start helping you right away.