What Is The Difference Between PTSD And Complex PTSD?

On the surface, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) can sound similar, and, in a lot of respects, they are. However, PTSD is a disorder that affects an individual’s emotional state after a traumatic event. C-PTSD, on the other hand, is more complex in that it can involve long-term trauma.

Even though PTSD and C-PTSD share similar qualities, the characteristics and even how the conditions are treated can be unique. Below is a closer look at the two mental health disorders and how they differ.

Both PTSD and C-PTSD happen because the brain is exposed to trauma. Trauma can have a profound effect on the brain. During a traumatic event, the limbic system can trigger a severe fight-or-flight response. Surviving this situation means that eventually, the nervous system does return to a normal state, but the event is stored in long-term memory. Most people recall the event, but the memory does not trigger the same severe feelings to return. However, for individuals with any type of PTSD, the memory can trigger the legitimate feelings associated with the experience. While the mechanisms of both types of PTSD are the same, there are differences to consider.

Differences Between PTSD and C-PTSD Causes

One of the primary differentiators between PTSD and C-PTSD is the root cause of trauma. What is the difference between trauma and complex trauma? Trauma is used in reference to a single event or instance of trauma, while complex trauma is characterized by multiple instances of trauma. Typically, PTSD occurs after one singular traumatic event (trauma). However, C-PTSD is more likely to occur after an individual has faced either multiple traumatic events or repeated trauma over the course of several years (complex trauma).

For example, PTSD may occur after:

  • An instance of violence or sexual assault
  • Being involved in a serious accident
  • Witnessing a violent crime
  • Experiencing a serious adverse health event

By contrast, C-PTSD may occur after:

  • Ongoing periods of neglect or abuse as a child
  • Ongoing experiences with domestic abuse
  • Witnessing violence or attacks against others repeatedly
  • Being a victim of kidnapping, human trafficking or captive torture

Differences Between Symptoms of Complex PTSD vs. PTSD

There can be overlaps between the characteristics of PTSD and C-PTSD, but there can also be noteworthy differences.

PTSD is generally characterized by feeling as though you are not safe, or your life is threatened, even though the trauma is not still taking place. Symptoms can last for many years and cause issues with the overall quality of life. Symptoms can include:

  • Disturbing memories of past trauma
  • Having nightmares associated with the trauma
  • Experiencing disassociation
  • Avoiding places, people and even sounds or objects that remind you of the past trauma
  • Having a loss of interest in activities that were enjoyed before the trauma
  • Taking part in risky behaviors
  • Experiencing flashbacks of the trauma with similar sensations
  • Dealing with persistent mood changes
  • Having a high startle response

C-PTSD can cause many of the aforementioned symptoms but can also be more likely to cause issues with emotional regulation, fuel poor self-image and affect interpersonal relationships. Symptoms can include:

  • Avoiding social interactions or meaningful relationships
  • Having an extreme response to emotions
  • Taking part in risky behaviors
  • Dealing with a poor self-image or low levels of self-esteem
  • Feeling angry, guilty or ashamed
  • Feeling that everyone around you is untrustworthy or unsafe
  • Dealing with extreme startle responses (e.g., violent acts of aggression when startled)
  • Losing memories associated with past traumatic events
  • Practicing self-harm

Treatment Method Differences Between Complex PTSD and PTSD

There can be similar treatment methodologies used to target both PTSD and C-PTSD. In both cases, treatments involved can include:

  • Different levels of psychotherapy
  • Medications for symptom management
  • Exposure therapy
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Each individual case of PTSD or C-PTSD can be unique, which means a combination of approaches may be used to build a personalized treatment plan. Further, a treatment plan may be adjusted over time or if a therapist feels the individual is not showing the best level of response to a certain type of treatment.

Find Compassionate Care for PTSD and C-PTSD at Vanguard

At Vanguard Behavioral Health, we understand the complexities associated with PTSD and C-PTSD, and how each individual may require a unique treatment plan or approach. We offer treatment for both PTSD and dealing with more complex trauma, and can also help with dual diagnosis at our facilities in Tucson and Albuquerque. Reach out to the team to discuss which treatment options will be best for you.

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