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.
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