CPTSD vs PTSD: What are the differences between post-traumatic stress disorders?

You’re probably familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder, but what about complex post-traumatic stress disorder?

Most people probably have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder results from a traumatic event, which can be physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological in nature. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) has all the characteristics of PTSD and then some. Here is a breakdown of both conditions and their symptoms.


“Trauma is not rare,” said Jonathon White, LCSW, a social worker with Norton Behavioral Health. “About 60% percent of men and 50% of women will experience some form of trauma in their lifetime.”

Traumatic events include war, domestic violence, death and more.

“PTSD can happen to anyone, at any time. It’s not a sign of weakness,” Jonathon said. “Many times, developing this condition isn’t in your control.”

A type of trauma that is often unaddressed is race-based trauma. “It’s a culturally sensitive topic, so therapists may avoid bringing race into a therapy session out of racial bias or limited cultural insight,” said Jonathon. He recommends The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health by Dr. Rheeda Walker as a resource for helping navigate mental health systems.

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Symptoms fall into four categories. Not everyone experiences these in the same way or to the same degree.

  • Reexperiencing the event: This includes memories of the event that bring on the same feelings as the event and can feel very real.
    “Reliving the event could look like having nightmares or flashbacks,” Jonathon said. “You might have triggers for this such as hearing fireworks or seeing a news report on a similar subject.”
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event: This includes staying away from people, places and situations that remind you of the incident. You might avoid talking about or thinking of the event.
  • Changes in negative thoughts and feelings: You might be more negative after the trauma. “This includes a wide range of symptoms,” Jonathon said. “You might repress memories of the event, or stop enjoying things you used to enjoy.”
  • Feeling anxious: This could be hypervigilance, jitters or sudden anger. You might have a hard time sleeping or find it difficult to concentrate.

“Complex PTSD is pretty much just what it sounds like — a more complex variation on regular PTSD,” Jonathon said. “The symptoms might be more intense, more frequent or happen in conjunction with many other symptoms.”

CPTSD includes the symptoms above and:

  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Feeling angry, frustrated, hopeless, empty or distrustful much of the time
  • Isolating yourself from friends, family and responsibilities
  • Dissociative symptoms, which make you feel like you are detached from your body or that the world is not real

“You aren’t alone,” Jonathon said. “It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.”

If you are in crisis, don’t wait.

Go to the emergency department, or call 911 or call a suicide hotline — such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

You also can call 988 or chat at 988Lifeline.org.

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