What Is the Difference Between PTSD and Complex PTSD?
If you've googled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you've probably come across a condition referred to as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). At first glance, you might think that they are the same condition.
However, if you look for Complex PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM 5), you will not find it. The DSM 5 currently only recognizes PTSD as a distinct mental health disorder. PTSD is viewed as a single, broad diagnosis that may include components of Complex PTSD. To further complicate the picture, both PTSD and Complex PTSD are recognized as separate mental health disorders by the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases.
To help you better understand these conditions, we're answering the most common questions about PTSD and CPTSD.
Is There a Difference Between Complex PTSD and PTSD?
There is increasing research and support for recognizing PTSD and CPTSD as separate disorders. Despite both stemming from traumatic experiences, there are distinct differences between PTSD and Complex PTSD and how they affect people.
PTSD happens after witnessing or experiencing a single traumatic event such as a car accident, a natural disaster, or assault. It can also result from combat exposure. Its primary symptoms include¹:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
- Avoidance and detachment from people, places, or other triggers related to the trauma
- Changes in mood and thinking, including numbness and blunted emotions
- Hyperarousal, including feeling edgy, easily frightened, or difficulty concentrating or sleeping
Complex PTSD results from the experience of prolonged, interpersonal traumatic events, often occurring early in life². It can result from experiencing abuse or neglect, ongoing domestic violence, repeated witnessing of violence or abuse, torture, or kidnapping.
Symptoms of Complex PTSD have a lot of overlap with PTSD but can also include³:
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Problems forming and maintaining healthy relationships
- Deep feelings of shame and guilt or failure
- Intense feelings of distrust
- Dissociative symptoms
- Suicidal ideation
Is CPTSD Worse Than PTSD?
Worse is a relative term, and it's unfair to compare someone's experience with trauma. How someone manages symptoms of PTSD versus how they manage symptoms of complex PTSD will depend on the individual. Some people cope quite well while experiencing some of the most severe symptoms; others may struggle significantly.
Are Complex PTSD And Chronic PTSD The Same Thing?
Complex PTSD and chronic PTSD are not the same thing. Complex PTSD is a disorder that results from experiencing prolonged and repeated interpersonal trauma. Symptoms can be severe and long-lasting.
PTSD results from witnessing or experiencing a single life-threatening traumatic event. Although no longer specified in the most recent edition of the DSM, chronic PTSD is generally regarded as having symptoms lasting three months or more. In fact, symptoms of PTSD can last many years for some people.
Is Complex PTSD Permanent?
The good news for people who live with complex PTSD is that it is possible to heal from trauma. Trauma-informed care has brought a new approach to trauma treatment that shifts the focus from simply treating one's symptoms to providing care that considers the impact of trauma in all facets of a person's life.
What Is the Best Treatment for Severe PTSD?
There is no single "best" treatment for PTSD treatment. Rather, a combination of interventions can help you to address your trauma and work toward healing and recovery. Below are some of the most effective trauma therapies that we use at All Points North Lodge.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is considered to be the "gold standard" for treating PTSD. EMDR is a psychotherapeutic method that uses bilateral eye movements or other types of bilateral stimulation as well as practices rooted in CBT and mindfulness. This method is so effective in treating even the most severe PTSD that it is recognized as one of the evidence-based practices for the treatment of PTSD by the Veterans Administration.
Other therapeutic interventions can also be quite helpful. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and specifically Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are highly effective approaches to help identify trauma and address past traumatic experiences, change negative thought patterns, and improve stress tolerance.
Somatic Experiencing, unlike DBT or CBT, is a body-oriented approach to trauma therapy that focuses more on the body's physiological response to the trauma. While a specific event may trigger trauma, the actual trauma is related to the body becoming overwhelmed by the fight or flight response.
Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Deep TMS is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that uses pulsed magnetic fields to activate specific neural circuits associated with PTSD. Research has found that TMS can provide relief for people with PTSD⁴.
Where to start with PTSD and CPTSD
When it comes to addressing the lingering symptoms from trauma, there is no one way, there is only your way. You are a unique individual with your own needs and preferences. When you're ready for healing, hope and help are available.
If you've been diagnosed with PTSD or CPTSD, our team of expert clinicians are ready to help you take the next step towards healing and recovery. Nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, All Points North Lodge offers a luxury rehab experience with the perfect environment for healing, personal growth, and recovery. Using evidence-based, client-centered treatment approaches, our team of clinicians has the expertise to guide you through the process from referral through program completion.
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. American Psychiatric Association, 2015.
- Lewis Herman, Judith. "Complex PTSD: A Syndrome in Survivors of Prolonged and Repeated Trauma." Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, July 1992, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.2490050305.
- Hyland, Philip, et al. "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in DSM‐5 and ICD‐11: Clinical and Behavioral Correlates." Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 25 Mar. 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.22272.
- Karsen, Ethan F, et al. "Review of the Effectiveness of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Brain Stimulation, RELX, 25 Nov. 2013, https://www.brainstimjrnl.com/article/S1935-861X(13)00341-0/fulltext.
- How Does Post Induction Therapy Help Treat Childhood Trauma?
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction
- How to Heal After an Abusive Relationship
- How Trauma Is Stored in the Body
- Somatic Experiencing as Trauma Therapy
- Understanding Addiction: Dual Diagnosis
- Trauma-Informed Care: What It Is and Why It Matters
- The Importance of Healing Generational Trauma
- What Is EDMR Therapy and How Does It Work?
- Subtle Signs of PTSD: Beyond the Stereotypes
- Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19