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The Difference Between PTSD and CPTSD

In many ways, both PTSD and Complex PTSD or CPTSD are very similar. They both occur as a result of a traumatic event and share many of the same symptoms. However, PTSD is usually caused by a single traumatic event, whereas CPTSD occurs after a series of traumatic events. So, for example, a house fire, a rape, or being injured in an automobile accident might cause PTSD because those are 1 single, discrete event. Experiencing ongoing abuse as a child, long-term domestic violence, or being kidnapped and forced into prostitution might set you up for CPTSD because trauma of this type happens repeatedly over a period of time.

CPTSD also more commonly develops when:

  • the trauma occurs at a young age

  • if the person did not see a chance of being rescued

  • the trauma lasted a long time

  • the person experienced multiple separate traumas

  • the harm was inflicted by someone close to the victim.


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Recurrent, intrusive memories of the traumatic event that are distressful for the person

  • Recurrent nightmares which contain either the narrative of the trauma or its emotional content

  • Dissociative reactions i.e., flashbacks, in which the person reexperiences the event in such a manner that it feels like he or she is reliving it

  • Intense negative reactions to triggers reminiscent of the event

  • Avoidance of everything associated with the trauma, including avoidance of memories of the trauma

  • Negative changes in cognitive and emotions associated with the trauma such as not being able to remember parts of it

  • Persistent negative cognitive distortions such as “I am damaged goods and no one will want me ever again”, or “the world is a dangerous place, and you cannot trust anyone”

  • Increased arousal and reactivity. This might be seen as an exaggerated startle response, increased irritability or anxiety, hypervigilance, or reckless behavior

CPTSD currently is not an official diagnosis and so is not in the DSM-V. However, it is defined by experts in the field as encompassing all the above symptoms plus the following:

  • Difficulty controlling emotions

  • Feeling angry and distrustful of other people

  • Feelings of emptiness and/or hopelessness

  • Having the feeling that one is permanently damaged or worthless

  • Feeling completely different from other people

  • Feeling no one can possibly understand what they went through

  • Avoiding friendships and family. Having difficult conflicted relationships

  • Increased symptoms of dissociation

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains, or stomach aches

  • Emotional flashbacks which do not contain visual content, but rather are a re-experiencing of the emotions that occurred during the trauma in their full intensity.

Is Treatment Different for PTSD and CPTSD?

Treatment for PTSD may include psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two. Therapy would include things such as

  • Learning more about how the trauma has affected you.

  • Learning ways to cope with triggers and symptoms of PTSD.

  • Recalling events of the trauma to uncouple these memories from the reaction of fear.

  • Use of CBT techniques to learn to recognize and change negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  • Bodywork to address any dissociation

CPTSD treatment is very similar to that of PTSD, but it generally takes longer because of the prolonged trauma that the individual went through. It also might include some of the following:

  • Education on ways to cope with strong emotions

  • Skill-building on how to develop and maintain a support system or strengthen current relationships

  • Learning methods to work through and manage feelings of guilt and worthlessness

If you or someone you or someone you know suspects they might have PTSD or CPTSD, or have experienced a traumatic event in their past, and are experiencing trouble coping with it, please reach out for help. This can be manageable.

For More Information

If you would like more information on Trauma Treatment, please click the link. Or, if you'd like an appointment, please call me today- I'd love to hear from you.

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