Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Dr. Justin Puder B.A, M.A, Ph.D
CPTSD vs PTSD: Understanding The Difference
Published May 26th, 2021 & updated on Jan 19th, 2022
You may have heard Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) used as a joke at some point. “Oh, I have PTSD from that hairstylist because she cut my hair all weird!” Well, real PTSD is actually waaaay scarier than a shitty haircut and doesn’t go away as easily as just growing your hair out. It’s a difficult mental health disorder that affects 1 in every 11 U.S. citizens!
There’s also Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) which, as the name hints at, is related to PTSD. There are quite a few differences, so we’re going to spend this article breaking down each condition and dissecting alllll the ways they vary.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD develops in people after they’ve witnessed or experienced something suuuper traumatic. It was often referred to as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” during World War I and II. But, despite those names, PTSD isn’t just reserved for veterans! It stems from a traumatic event and causes you to have thoughts and memories of the event even after the danger has passed. Basically, your fight-or-flight response is kicked into high gear at all times. There are several types of trauma that can result in PTSD, so let’s take a look at them.
Of course, there are sooo many things that can cause trauma, but it’s usually very serious things like death, violence and injury that lead to PTSD! Whether it affected you directly, you’ve witnessed it, or it has happened to a loved one, these are some examples of triggers:
- Natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.)
- Military combat and wars
- Physical or sexual assault or abuse
- Near-death experiences like a really bad accident or collision
- Having a job that exposes you to trauma (first responders, medical personnel, etc.)
- Hearing about adverse details of an event (first responders, police officers, mental health professionals, etc.)
Extra risk factors include having a history of mental illness or substance use, childhood trauma, and having little-to-no support after the traumatic event!
Types Of PTSD
There are multiple stress-related disorders connected to PTSD, but we’re going to focus on the 4 groups of symptoms! While depression and panic attacks tend to be pretty universal across the board, there are some specific symptoms that can be grouped together. Everyone will experience them differently, but they tend to fall under these categories:
1. Intrusion: categorized by flashbacks, nightmares and distressing memories.
2. Avoidance: avoiding people, places and situations, and talk about the trauma.
3. Arousal: trouble sleeping or concentrating due to always being aware of the trauma.
4. Cognition: having negative thoughts about oneself or the world, trouble being happy.
Signs of PTSD usually show up within 3 months of a traumatic event, but they can sometimes pop up later! All of the symptoms associated with the 4 groups listed above can be hella uncomfy and disrupt your ability to function in everyday situations. So, let’s break them down a little more!
Intrusion causes you to relive the event over and over. Whether through flashbacks, vivid memories, or constant nightmares it causes intense physical and mental distress every single time.
Avoidance, just like the name entails, is all about avoiding people, places and circumstances that remind you of the traumatic event! You also hate talking about it, because you want to avoid reliving the situation at all costs.
People experiencing arousal and reactivity have trouble concentrating, are constantly on edge and have an exaggerated response when being startled! They also tend to be irritable and have bouts of anger.
As for cognition and mood, it shows up through mixed feelings of guilt, worry and self-blame. People experiencing this will have a hard time remembering important aspects of the actual event. They also will no longer participate in activities they once enjoyed!
PTSD can happen to literally anyone and at any age. But women are actually twice as likely to get it than men and are less likely to ask for help right away! Women will also experience more anxiety, depression, numbness and sensitivity, while men have more concerns around mood issues, avoidance, re-experiencing and arousal.
What Is CPTSD?
Alright, time to get into Complex PTSD and why it’s so different! CPTSD has been getting more recognition over recent years for being the result of a repeated trauma over months — or even YEARS — rather than one singular event, like regular PTSD. The two are similar in some aspects because they include allll of the same symptoms. Except CPTSD actually includes a whole lot more on top of them. Let’s figure out what those are!
So, in addition to all of the shitty things folks with PTSD go through (the intrusion, the avoidance, and so on and so forth) here are 6 symptoms that are unique to CPTSD!
1. No Emotional Regulation: uncontrollable feelings, whether explosive anger or ongoing sadness.
2. Consciousness Changes: a lot of dissociation and forgetting about the traumatic event.
3. Negative Self-View: a lot of guilt and shame, to the point of feeling different from others.
4. Relationship Problems: avoiding them altogether out of mistrust, or seeking out abusive relationships.
5. Fixating On Abuser: either being preoccupied with revenge or giving the abuser full control of your life.
6. Losing Faith: no longer trusting long-held beliefs or your view of the world.
The events that trigger CPTSD tend to be more long-lasting and not just one, singular event! In most cases, it’s from being under the control of another person or situation and not being able to escape. Here are some examples:
- Ongoing sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
- Being held captive or being a prisoner of war
- Prolonged childhood neglect
- Living in a war-torn area for a long period of time
Like PTSD, there are also some extra risk factors that can expose you to CPTSD! That includes underlying mental health conditions, how the brain processes stress hormones and lifestyle factors like not having a solid support system.
What’s The Difference Between PTSD And CPTSD?
As you could probably tell from reading the different symptoms and triggers, there are TWO key differences between PTSD and CPTSD — the biggest one being the length of the traumatic event! PTSD usually stems from one major, life-changing event. Trauma that leads to CPTSD can go on for months or even years! And, while PTSD gets worse over time in terms of fear and anxiety, CPTSD can be worsened by the harmful effects of racism, oppression and a shitty justice system.
The second big difference is the amount of symptoms! CPTSD exhibits all of the same ones as PTSD, and then some. So, not only did the trauma go on for much longer, but the outcome is more than TWICE the amount of symptoms. Doesn’t really seem fair, does it?
How To Deal With CPTSD vs PTSD
When it comes to PTSD treatment that also works for CPTSD, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has been found to be very helpful! The process is guided by a therapist and focuses on using eye movements to process and reframe traumatic memories. Once all is said and done, the hopeful outcome is to be able to reduce any negative feelings associated with that trauma!
With CPTSD, it may require a bit more time when it comes to treatment because you’re dealing with multiple traumatic experiences across a longer time period. Medication, such as antidepressants, can also be helpful in reducing anxiety and depression, in addition to psychotherapy.