February 27, 2023

The Difference Between Complex PTSD and PTSD

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many people but is sometimes confused with complex PTSD, which is a different diagnosis. Understanding the difference between Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and PTSD helps both the person suffering from the mental illness and anyone who treats them. 


Many things can cause a person to develop PTSD or Complex PTSD. They all involve someone experiencing trauma themselves or witnessing a traumatic event. These events can include:

  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Physical assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Being involved in an accident
  • Being threatened with violence
  • Witnessing violence against someone else
  • Abuse or neglect during childhood
  • Natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods
  • Involvement in or witnessing military events, including war
  • The death of a loved one

Developing PTSD and Complex PTSD makes a person more likely to develop other mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. These conditions also make a person more vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, developing an eating disorder, and experiencing suicidal thoughts or attempts, something referred to as a dual diagnosis.


Most of the symptoms for both Complex PTSD and PTSD are the same and can include: 

  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Having flashbacks
  • Feeling triggered by anniversary dates of traumatizing events
  • Easily startled
  • Feeling numb
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Feeling aggressive or violent
  • Withdrawing from life and loved ones


The difference between Complex PTSD and PTSD mood disorders has to do with how often the traumatic events happen. PTSD is often associated with singular traumatic events, such as being in an accident, being physically or sexually assaulted one time, or being involved in or witnessing a singular act of war or other military events. Complex PTSD develops as a result of repeated exposure to traumatic events, often over the course of several months or years. For example, a person who experiences repeated domestic violence or multiple exposures to military events often develops Complex PTSD. This is because the events they are subjected to are repetitive and chronic, rather than singular events. 

With Complex PTSD, the sufferer is at risk for developing distorted perceptions about a person who commits traumatic acts against them, such as an abusive parent or domestic partner. The individual may feel shame or guilt for what happened, taking on some of the burdens of responsibility for the acts that happened to them. When this happens, it makes it more difficult for them to seek help. 


Many victims of domestic abuse do not call the police or tell loved ones what is happening to them. This is not only out of fear of retaliation from their abuser, but also because they feel they act in ways that cause their abuse. Their self-esteem has been beaten down along with their bodies. This makes it difficult to comprehend that they deserve help and need to seek it immediately.

The person may also disassociate during traumatic events. They either find a way to blank out during repetitive traumatic events or they develop an ability to watch it as if it’s happening to someone else. These techniques are the brain’s way of trying to protect the person in any way possible from fully experiencing yet another act of trauma perpetrated against them. This act of divorcing themselves from what’s happening can add to their hesitancy to seek help. It may not feel as impactful when they are mentally checked out to some degree. 


While there are differences between Complex PTSD and PTSD, treatment for both conditions is usually quite similar. Approximately 7% of people will develop PTSD at some point in their lives. Many of them come from high-risk groups, such as members of the military and first responders, such as police, firefighters, and paramedics. Regardless of a person’s job, anyone can develop either kind of PTSD, and the quicker they seek help, the less suffering they will have to endure.

Treatment for PTSD involves talk therapy, which allows the person a safe place to discuss traumatic events that either occurred in the past or are ongoing. When a person with PTSD participates in ongoing therapy, they learn how to process what happened to them and develop healthy coping skills for when things like flashbacks happen. Therapy ultimately should help reduce their PTSD symptoms and lessen the effect that the trauma has on them. 

Many people with PTSD respond well to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This process involves discussing the person’s trauma while engaging in eye movement exercises, which results in lessening PTSD symptoms. A person who has C-PTSD will need to spend more time preparing for the beginning of the sessions. Additionally, they may need to participate in them for a longer period of time than those who have PTSD. 

About half of all people who suffer from a mental illness also have a substance use disorder. If an individual deals with PTSD or Complex PTSD along with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the best plan involves seeking treatment for both conditions at the same time. Many treatment programs are skilled and experienced at addressing both mental health and addiction and can help their patients make progress with both conditions. 


Gratitude Lodge offers compassionate and complete drug detox, inpatient, and outpatient programs that help people with substance use disorders. We also treat co-occurring mental health issues in a pet-friendly environment designed to treat you as an individual. 
If you are ready to talk about getting the help you deserve, contact Gratitude Lodge. We are happy to answer any questions you have about our programs.

Complex PTSD vs PTSD FAQs

The main difference between PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and complex PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is the nature of the traumatic experiences. PTSD typically results from a single traumatic event, while complex PTSD is associated with repeated or prolonged trauma, often involving interpersonal or childhood abuse, which can lead to a broader range of symptoms and challenges in coping with daily life.

To determine if you have PTSD or CPTSD, it’s essential to consult with a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist. They will conduct a thorough assessment, discuss your symptoms, and consider your personal history of trauma to make an accurate diagnosis and create an appropriate treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.

CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is generally considered more severe than PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to the cumulative and prolonged nature of trauma in CPTSD. CPTSD often involves a broader range of symptoms, including difficulties with emotional regulation, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and a more profound impact on overall functioning.

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Joe Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
Jenni Bussi

Jenni Busse MS, LPCC

Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

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