C-PTSD & PTSD:
What is it, and What’s the Difference?
Hi there friends! Thank you so much for joining me in learning! We’re going to be talking all about mental health today- in particular the disorders PTSD and C-PTSD. These two disorders are quite often stigmatized, and having C-PTSD myself, I’m hoping that I can help explain the differences and break down the basics of the disorders. I will be more thoroughly explaining C-PTSD, as it is widely more unknown than PTSD. (also, with me having C-PTSD, I can give a more in-depth explanation as to what I personally experience.) Warning! Some topics may be upsetting and/or triggering, so please be mindful of that.
First things first, PTSD and C-PTSD are Trauma Based Disorders. Well, what’s that? Sometimes, when a person experiences a highly traumatic or disturbing event, they may develop a mental health disorder related to the experience.
This is known as a trauma disorder, & there are 7 different types:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)
Unspecified Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders
* Of these, PTSD is one of the most well-known trauma disorders- it’s estimated to affect around 8 million U.S. adults in a given year.
What is PTSD?
So, what is PTSD? PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder develops when a person experiences a traumatic event in their life. A diagnosis of PTSD is based upon a sudden exposure to an event that involves an actual or possible threat of death, violence, or serious injury.
Exposure to this can happen in one or more of these ways:
You directly experienced the traumatic event.
You witnessed, in person, the traumatic event occurring to others.
Someone close to you experienced or was threatened by the traumatic event.
* Events of traumatic exposure may include (but are not limited to)- natural disasters, life-threatening accidents, acts of war/combat, or serious/fatal injuries.
While it’s common for initial symptoms to begin within the days following a traumatic event, symptoms can begin to surface even months later.
The symptoms of PTSD can be grouped into four major categories:
Intrusive thoughts about the event, including nightmares and flashbacks.
Avoidance of anything that reminds you of the event.
Behavioral changes such as insomnia, withdrawing from loved ones, and engaging in reckless or self-destructive behaviors.
Cognitive disturbances like irritability, negative thoughts about self or others, and fear/paranoia.
* In order to receive a PTSD diagnosis, you must experience a certain number of symptoms from each category for over one month.
Most people have heard of PTSD- it afflicts many men and women returning from a war zone, recovering from a disaster, or healing from a tragic accident. However, in spite of this, many have never heard of a condition that often (but not always) develops in childhood and changes the course of the child’s life forever: Complex Post-Traumatic Stress disorder or C-PTSD.
What is C-PTSD?
So, what’s the difference? Unlike PTSD, Complex PTSD is developed in response to repeated and chronic traumatization of a person for an extended period of time, often for years. C-PTSD is a developmental trauma disorder (DTD) which differs from post-traumatic stress disorder which normally, but not always, forms in adulthood.
The trauma model states that children develop C-PTSD when experiencing severe & repeated traumatic events such as, but not limited to:
Experiencing repeated physical, psychological, or sexual abuse.
Experiencing neglect or mistreatment from the primary caregiver.
Experiencing recurring domestic abuse.
Experiencing human trafficking.
Living in a region affected by war.
Experiencing cult environments.
* All are repeated experiences of interpersonal trauma in a context of which the individual has little or no chance of escape.
When children experience this, such as I did when I was a child, the brain is still developing. Severe, repeated trauma immobilizes common neurological development. lack the emotional dissonance to admit to themselves that the people who are supposed to be caring for them are same people who want to hurt them. Essentially, this thought is akin to emotional suicide for a child, so they use other means to manage the trauma.
This stunted emotional development may give way to several additional mental health disorders, including borderline personality disorder and dissociative disorders, as well as others. (which I am also diagnosed with)
When these children become adults, they will have wide-reaching, debilitating symptoms without a solidified understanding of self. The symptoms of C-PTSD are life-altering. The most common symptoms include but are not limited to:
Problems with Emotional Regulation- Typically, because of being in a constant state of stress, survivors will likely be unable to fully comprehend or regulate their emotions. In addition, feeling emotions is terrifying and might be expressed in a volatile/self-destructive manner.
Flashbacks- Unfortunately, the flashbacks that survivors often have are intrusive and the triggers causing them are usually not entirely known or elusive. This kind of flashback is known as an emotional flashback.
Complications with Interpersonal Relationships- The fear involved in trusting another human being is incomparable after experiencing something traumatic. Survivors often continually harbor the intense compulsion to hide away while also desperately feeling a need for someone to love them.
Attachment to the Perpetrator- It's usually very difficult for the person to break free from the influence of abusers, especially if that person is someone they love, like a family member. They will stay and sometimes protect the abuser even though they may know the behavior they received as children or are receiving currently is unjustifiable.
Difficulties with Self-Perception- Many believe they are fundamentally “bad” or damaged beyond repair. This leaves survivors feeling hopeless and helpless. Survivors often take on the role of a “rescuer”, sacrificing their own health and happiness to care for others. There is also a permeating feeling of not belonging in the world; that, somehow, they’re a mistake and should have never been born. This brings a deep sense of loneliness that may result in isolation.
Detachment from Reality- After experiencing trauma, you will often have difficulty reconceptualizing your current state of safety, as in the past, you knew no such thing. Because of flashbacks and overall anxiety, survivors feel as though they are unsafe all the time and that the world is dangerous, or that, against all odds, the trauma will occur again. In contrast, a survivor of Complex PTSD may also feel no sense of self at all, or may feel as if they are no longer human or attached to this plane of existence. This is called depersonalization and derealization. And it’s horrible.
Although these symptoms are sometimes brushed off as being “easy to handle with self-control", conquering such symptoms is much harder than it may seem.
Having flashbacks, reliving the trauma, and avoiding situations that may cause either (or both) of them is disabling. People who experience this on a daily basis have an excruciating time trying holding down a steady job, dealing with others, socializing with others, and other basic everyday functions.
In addition, with constant anxiety and hyperarousal of the nervous system, as well as the dizziness, detachment, and the nausea that often accompanies it- it makes it difficult for survivors to be able to relax, as they live in fear all the time. It’s because of these symptoms that survivors may feel the world is too threatening for them, and that they need to hide by isolating themselves, dissociating, or other avoidance behaviors.
While PTSD and C-PTSD are not curable per se, they are highly treatable. With the right care from a qualified psychologist or therapist, the symptoms will get easier to manage, and you’ll find fantastic coping mechanisms that work for you! There’s a multitude of treatments, exercises, groups, help centers, and people who love you that are available to help you heal.
It is also important to remember that you are not alone. There are millions of people throughout the world that are diagnosed with a form of PTSD, and there are millions of people like you and I who will band together to create a welcoming and well-informed environment for survivors.
If anyone you know has been through this, please, find it in your heart to be patient. Be respectful. Be loving. Be there. And if you, yourself has been through this, please stay strong. Please keep fighting. It may be a long, dark, and difficult road, but I’m here to stand behind you. I’m rooting for you. We can survive this.