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  • Grace Dowd

PTSD vs. CPTSD: What's the Difference?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) can both arise after experiencing a traumatic event, or multiple traumatic events. While there is often an overlap in symptoms, there are key differences between these two experiences that are important to understand.


PTSD can occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a tornado, an accident, or an assault. Symptoms of PTSD may vary in individuals, though common ones include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of triggers, hyperarousal, and negative changes in mood or thinking. These symptoms interfere with daily activities and can be highly distressing.



CPTSD, on the other hand, is a relatively new diagnosis that was added to the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in 2018. CPTSD can arise after experiencing multiple or prolonged traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or neglect, human trafficking, or ongoing interpersonal violence. The symptoms of CPTSD include all of the symptoms of PTSD, as well as difficulties with emotional regulation, interpersonal relationships, and self-identity. These symptoms can be chronic and persistent, lasting for years or even a lifetime.


One of the key differences between PTSD and CPTSD is the nature of the traumatic events that lead to each disorder. While PTSD can be caused by a single traumatic event, CPTSD is typically the result of ongoing trauma or abuse. For example, a person who has been in a car accident may develop PTSD, whereas a person who has experienced ongoing emotional or physical abuse as a child may develop CPTSD.


Another difference between the two disorders is the way that they impact a person's sense of self. People with PTSD may experience a sense of detachment or disconnection from the world around them, but they generally retain a stable sense of self. In contrast, people with CPTSD may have a fragmented or unstable sense of self, as well as difficulties with emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships.



People with CPTSD may also experience a range of other symptoms that are not included in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. For example, they may struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, or self-blame, and they may have difficulty trusting others. They may also experience physical symptoms such as chronic pain, headaches, or gastrointestinal issues.


Treatment for PTSD and CPTSD can be similar in some respects, but there are also some important differences. Both disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. However, people with CPTSD may benefit from longer-term therapy that focuses on developing a stable sense of self, improving emotional regulation, and addressing interpersonal difficulties.


In general, the treatment of both PTSD and CPTSD should be tailored to the individual's specific symptoms and needs. This may involve a combination of evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Some individuals find it helpful or even necessary to support this work with medication management as well.


It is important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD or CPTSD. However, for those who do, seeking treatment as soon as possible can improve outcomes and help individuals regain a sense of control over their lives.

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