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Differences and Similarities Between PTSD and Complex PTSD

Updated: Feb 4

Graphic with text "PTSD vs. C-PTSD learn the differences and similarities, are they the same thing?

Are PTSD and Complex PTSD the same thing?

PTSD stands for Post traumatic Stress Disorder. Complex PTSD on the other hand is not yet a clinical diagnosis, but a term used to describe certain experiences and symptoms one may exhibit beyond PTSD. PTSD and C-PTSD are referred to as sibling conditions; they both fall under the parent category of disorders associated with trauma. Because of the similarities between them it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. It’s always frustrating when people struggle to tell you and your siblings apart but as you get older you begin to notice the similarities and start to understand why so many struggle to see the differences. While there are key differences between PTSD and C-PTSD, like siblings there are also many similarities. These similarities can lead to confusion for those that struggle with symptoms and those that are diagnosing. So in short, they’re not the same thing and it can be difficult to understand the differences.

Woman sitting on window frame appearing sad

Causes of PTSD and Complex PTSD

PTSD and C-PTSD are both caused by experiencing a traumatic event. The key difference is the length of time the trauma is experienced, whether it is a single experience or multiple and the symptoms that show up afterwards. It’s important to note that not every case of CPTSD or PTSD will look the same; however, this is the usual pattern.

PTSD is usually caused by a single traumatic event. A few examples of single traumatic events are: car accidents, assault, sudden loss, a natural disaster, or a medical emergency. PTSD can be caused by a wide variety of experiences but it is usually limited to events that only happen once.

C-PTSD develops after a series of repeated, chronic or multiple traumatic events, particularly those that take place while the brain is developing. Some common causes of C-PTSD include: childhood abuse, ongoing domestic violence, repeatedly witnessing traumatic events, bullying, living in a war zone or chronic neglect.

Similarities between PTSD and Complex PTSD

PTSD and C-PTSD share the same core symptoms. Someone with PTSD or C-PTSD may experience all of these symptoms, a few of these symptoms, or none at all

Core Symptoms of PTSD and Complex PTSD

  • Changes in emotional responses: Feeling nervous, on guard, worried, being hyper-vigilant, having an exaggerated startle response (startling easily) and constantly anticipating danger. Irritability, feelings of anger, guilt and shame.

  • Changes in physical responses: trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, self destructive behaviors (self- medication, eating disorders and self harm)

  • Avoidance: Avoiding people, places, things or thoughts that remind you of the trauma.

  • Re-Experiencing: Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks, memories, or dreams.

  • Negative changes in thinking and mood: Feeling numb or distant from other people, negative views of the world, memory issues, trouble experiencing positive emotions, feeling numb and experiencing hopelessness. These can lead to difficulties in managing and forming relationships.

Not every person will experience these symptoms in the same way, however the DSM (diagnostic manual) requires you to have at least one symptom in each category.

What makes Complex PTSD different?

So, back to Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it really is PTSD but more complex. With C-PTSD, there are additional symptoms that you may experience that are not normally linked to PTSD. Some of these additional symptoms include:

  • Negative Self Perception: Having a negative view of yourself or your actions.

  • Negative World View: Persistent negative thoughts towards the world or loss of previously held optimism.

  • Difficulty Managing Emotions: Having a hard time controlling your emotions. This may lead to involuntary outbursts of anger or sadness.

  • Feeling Detached from the Trauma: Not remembering or feeling distant from the traumatic experience. This can happen in single-incident PTSD, however it happens more often and with a greater degree of complexity with C-PTSD.

  • Trust Issues: Having a hard time trusting others as well as yourself.

  • Participating in Unhealthy Relationships: Engaging in harmful or destructive relationships and potentially replaying the dynamics of past experiences.

  • Fixation on the Abuser: Preoccupation with getting revenge, gathering information about, or a general fixation on the abuser.

Trauma therapist listening intently to a client with C-PTSD

Are PTSD and Complex PTSD treated differently?

Yes and no. PTSD and C-PTSD are usually treated similarly. Treatment can consist of therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Treatment for PTSD is heavily based on the individual and what they are experiencing. C-PTSD treatment will also focus on treating the additional symptoms present in this condition and can often take longer than PTSD treatment. Whether you have PTSD or C-PTSD the treatment for you may vary greatly from another individual due to the unique needs and experiences of each survivor. Knowing the differences allows you to better identify which stress disorder you may have as well as provide you with information on symptoms you may be experiencing.

Start healing from Complex PTSD Today!

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