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Knowing the Differences Between PTSD & C-PTSD

When people think of trauma, they are likely to think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or “Acute Stress Disorder”. However, interest in Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) has been on the rise, and it’s important to know the difference between PTSD and CPTSD.While PTSD and C-PTSD share some symptoms in common, both diagnoses have distinct differences that require different treatment approaches. In this blog, we will explore the differences between C-PTSD and PTSD, their symptoms, and treatment approaches.

Types of Trauma

Trauma is defined by the person who is experiencing the stressful event. Therefore, two people may share an experience, yet only one of them may perceive it as traumatic.  Hence why, when assessing an individual for PTSD or CPTSD, we must understand how the stressor impacted the person’s functioning.

Some examples of traumatic events that can cause PTSD include natural disasters, combat, sexual assault, or witness to accidents, violence or other stressful events.. C-PTSD, on the other hand, typically results from long-term abuse or neglect, such as childhood abuse, domestic violence, or living in a war zone.

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What Are the Differences Between PTSD & C-PTSD?

PTSD is a disorder that is caused by exposure to real or perceived danger, threat or stress. Symptoms of PTSD last for more than 4 weeks and occur after a threatening event occurs. PTSD is more likely to result when trauma occurs as a single incident or within a brief period of time.

On the other hand, C-PTSD is a form of PTSD that develops after a person experiences prolonged or repeated trauma. While PTSD is typically associated with a single traumatic event, C-PTSD is associated with ongoing or repeated trauma.

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Symptom Categories of

  1. Intrusive memories, including flashbacks and nightmares
  2. Avoidance of reminders related to the traumatic event
  3. Changes in mood and thought patterns
  4. Arousal symptoms like hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia

Additional Symptoms designated to C-PTSD

C-PTSD also includes additional symptoms such as:

  • Challenges with emotion regulation
  • Negative self-image
  • Issues with interpersonal relationships
  • Symptoms are often more complicated and persistent, and may require a longer period of treatment.

Type & Duration of Symptoms

While PTSD and C-PTSD share some symptoms, these diagnoses differ in their type of symptoms and the duration of symptoms.

PTSD symptoms usually appear soon after the traumatic event and can last for weeks, months, or even years. Unlike PTSD, C-PTSD symptoms may take years to fully present, and the course of development of these symptoms may change (i.e., avoidance, interpersonal challenges, etc). 
Furthermore, people with C-PTSD may experience ongoing symptoms of PTSD, such as:

  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • avoidant behaviors
  • difficulty regulating emotions
  • dissociation
  • relationship difficulties.

 Because C-PTSD is correlated with longer exposures to trauma, many individuals with C-PTSD experience symptoms post-stress that were once “adaptive”, survival behaviors but are now interfering with their lives.

Characteristics of C-PTSD

In addition to PTSD symptoms, C-PTSD is often characterized by three main symptoms:

  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Negative self-perception
  • Difficulty forming relationships.

Emotional dysregulation refers to difficulty regulating emotions, which can lead to mood swings, explosive anger, or emotional numbness.
Negative self-perception refers to feeling shame, guilt, or worthlessness, often as a result of the trauma.
Difficulty forming relationships can manifest as mistrust, fear of intimacy, or difficulty expressing emotions.

Characteristics of PTSD

PTSD is often characterized by four main symptoms: 

  • Re-experiencing,
  • Avoidance
  • Hyperarousal,
  • Negative changes in mood or cognition.

Re-experiencing refers to flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive memories of the traumatic event.
Avoidance behavior refers to efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or reminders of the traumatic event.
Hyperarousal refers to an exaggerated startle response, irritability, or difficulty sleeping.
Negative changes in mood or cognition refer to feelings of guilt, shame, or detachment from others.

How Does Treatment Differ in CPTSD and PTSD treatment?

Treatment for PTSD and C-PTSD are similar and typically include a combination of medication and psychotherapy. The most common therapeutic approaches for trauma related disorders are:

In addition to this, CPTSD treatment may include supportive modalities such as:

  • Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation (STAIR)
  • Somatic Experience Therapies
  •  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Because C-PTSD is often the result of prolonged or repeated trauma, it may require additional therapy, or therapy that offers more flexibility and focus on relationships, emotional regulation and communication skills.

Although medication can be helpful in reducing the intensity of symptoms, it should be used in conjunction with therapy to address the root cause of the trauma. Also, it is important that you work with a qualified therapist when undergoing trauma-therapy to ensure that re-traumatization does not occur.

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Is it possible for
PTSD to develop into C-PTSD?

Individuals may feel that their symptoms of trauma intensify, and that this prolonged struggle may add to the risk of developing CPTSD. Furthermore, maladaptive coping skills, re-triggering events or people, and vulnerability to additional trauma may exist. Therefore, it is important that an individual who has PTSD or CPTSD be provided with services that look at the person as a whole, and ensure that safety and comfort are established in their surroundings and in their relationships.

Moreover, what may initially appear as PTSD stemming from a single traumatic incident or short-term trauma may later be recognized as a result of a series of traumatic events over time. This accumulation of trauma can result in more complex and severe symptoms that are better characterized as C-PTSD.

"Trauma- Response" Triggers

Symptoms of trauma may disappear or decrease for a large portion of time, though may resurface if triggered by changes in the environment or life circumstances. This includes changes  in relationships, careers, living environment, or lifestyle. 

This experience is sometimes referred to as a “trauma response” in which an individual responds to changes with a “fight, flight, or freeze” response, even if the situation does not warrant an intense response. This cycle can continue to perpetuate, leading to more difficulties.

Tips for Finding a Therapist for
PTSD or C-PTSD Treatment

As soon as you notice symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, it’s crucial to seek help from a mental health professional trained in trauma-informed care. These therapists follow specific guidelines that ensure a safe, welcoming office space and offer choices about the type of treatment you prefer. They focus on collaborating with you and earning your trust. Moreover, they empower you to gradually develop coping skills and learn how to manage triggers.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the distinctions between PTSD and C-PTSD can find the right therapist for you. Equally important, finding an experienced trauma-informed therapist can provide you with the support you need. You are entitled to a safe, confidential and supportive environment.

Professional treatment is available to help you cope with the aftermath of trauma. Taking the initiative to seek help and actively participate in treatment is the first step.

If you’re ready to talk to a therapist, reach out to us today!
Our New Jersey Based tele-therapists are experts in the treatment of
trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD & stress management.