What is the Difference Between PTSD & Complex PTSD?
PTSD Complex PTSD. In recent years the global focus has shifted toward the topic of mental health disorders, spreading more awareness around their symptoms and causes, and finding healing solutions in everything from behavioral therapy to psychedelics. PTSD and Complex PTSD are one of these mental health disorders that have been amongst us for a while, but have only recently gained more traction, as more and more people come forward with their personal experiences.
What is PTSD?
PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that develops as a consequence of a traumatic and shocking event. It’s a chronic disorder that can be defined as a collection of traumatic symptoms that can impair your daily functions, social interactions, and overall quality of life.
Causes of PTSD
The causes of PTSD can greatly vary from person to person, but they usually include:
- Physical or sexual assault
- Any kind of physical or psychological abuse (domestic, childhood, etc…)
- Serious and traumatic accidents
- Exposure to any kind of traumatic event
- Severe health conditions such as cancer and its healing journey
- Natural disasters
- Pregnancy loss and childbirth trauma
- Loss in general
- War and terrorist events
Not everyone will experience PTSD after going through some (or more) of the abovementioned causes, but this mental health condition usually develops after some serious life event, and it doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. The most common cause of PTSD we hear about is war, conflict, and everything it brings along. Most war veterans suffer from PTSD as they’ve been repeatedly exposed to indescribable trauma, loss, torture, and fear. Still, you can have the exact same symptoms if you’ve lost your baby or experienced a hurricane event.
Symptoms of PTSD
People who suffer from PTSD develop long-lasting chronic symptoms that don’t seem to go away. They can show up immediately after their cause or even a few months (sometimes even years) after, when your brain starts to get triggered by similar or similarly-looking events and situations. For example, a war veteran might get triggered by the sound of fireworks as they remind him of an open fire, or experiencing turbulence in an airplane might trigger anxiety and fear if you’ve been involved in some sort of near-death accident.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, you need to experience the following symptoms for at least one full month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom (flashbacks, nightmares)
- At least one avoidance symptom (staying away from places, people, or experiences that remind you of the traumatic event)
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms (feeling tense, anxious, startled, angry)
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms (memory holes surrounding the key features of the traumatic event, general negative thoughts, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, numbness, and a complete loss of interest in enjoyable activities)
PTSD is a serious mental health condition and should be addressed as such by talking to a mental health specialist, psychologist, therapist, or a combination of all. Together, they will create an individualized plan of treatment that will be tailored to you and your symptoms, triggers, and overall causes.
These treatment options usually include a combination of medications and psychotherapy, which can greatly differ from person to person. Nowadays, you can also find a variety of alternative treatments that include everything from shock therapy to psychedelic-assisted treatments, but what works for your friend might not work for you and vice versa. Every case should be analyzed and treated differently as those with PTSD are oftentimes diagnosed with more than just one mental health disorder and usually coupled with anxiety and depression.
What is Complex PTSD?
Complex PTSD or C-PTSD is a post-traumatic stress disorder that occurs due to repeated, prolonged trauma. It involves all of the symptoms of PTSD as well as additional ones that show up as aggravated anxiety and fear, all with much greater intensity.
Causes of C-PTSD?
Causes of C-PTSD are generally the same as for PTSD, but it seems to typically be a result of childhood trauma, racism, oppression, genocide, terrorism, or other long-lasting, sometimes even generational events (slavery). Unlike PTSD that’s mostly a result of a single event, C-PTSD develops after long-lasting, complex trauma that can last for months and even years.
Symptoms of C-PTSD
The usual symptoms of C-PTSD include all (or most) of the PTSD symptoms, from avoidance and re-experiencing to arousal and cognition. However, C-PTSD includes additional symptoms such as:
- Self-destructive view and negativity
- Uncontrollable outbursts and emotions that make it hard to function in their day-to-day life
- Depersonalization and derealisation (isolation from themselves and the world) as a coping mechanism
- Feeling completely lost, from own beliefs and values to faith and even a sense of reality
- Extreme anxiety episodes and depression (usually treatment-resistant)
The existing approach towards treating C-PTSD includes the same combination as for PTSD, medications, and psychotherapy. The most common psychotherapeutic treatment is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and it includes rhythmic eye movement from left to right in order to help people recover from trauma or other stressful experiences.
Key Differences Between PTSD and Complex PTSD
PTSD and C-PTSD are very similar, but they do have some key differences that are worth noting:
- PTSD usually occurs after a single traumatic event whereas C-PTSD develops due to long-lasting and repeated trauma.
- C-PTSD has additional symptoms that make the entire experience more intense and severe.
- C-PTSD is typically a result of childhood or generational trauma, or extremely devastating events such as genocide and terroristic attacks.
- C-PTSD cannot be found in the fifth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5), which means it isn’t officially classified or recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Experts believe that this complex condition is too similar to PTSD as well as some other trauma-related conditions to warrant a separate diagnosis, regardless of the fact that it comes with an additional set of severe and life-altering symptoms.
- The doctor will usually diagnose you with PTSD since there is no specific test to determine whether or not you might actually have C-PTSD. That’s why it’s important to keep track of your symptoms.
- C-PTSD also can share symptoms and signs with some other mental health disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Even though C-PTSD isn’t recognized as a separate mental health condition by APA, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as its own separate diagnosis in their 11th revision of the “International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems”(ICD-11) in 2018.
The main difference between PTSD and Complex PTSD is the duration of the traumatic incident itself. While PTSD may occur after only one traumatic event, C-PTSD is a result of ongoing trauma, which is why it’s coupled with a variety of additional symptoms that only intensify this mental health disorder. If you’re experiencing some or all of the symptoms mentioned in this article, seek help from a medical professional that focuses on one or both of these conditions and find the right healing journey for you and your unique situation and set of circumstances.