As a veteran, you’re most likely familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But have you heard of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD)? Despite their overlapping symptoms and the similar experiences that cause them, these are different diagnoses with different symptoms. Below you can learn more about C-PTSD vs. PTSD and where you can get help if you believe you may be experiencing one or both of these mental health conditions.

What Is PTSD?

What Is PTSD?

Before delving into comparing and contrasting C-PTSD vs. PTSD, it’s important to start with a foundational understanding of each diagnosis.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently occurs after a single traumatic event such as military combat, assault, or a natural disaster. Symptoms of this mental health condition result from feeling unable to escape danger or feel safe in a traumatic situation. Individuals tend to feel afraid and unsafe after the danger has passed, causing them to relive the event when triggered. Survivors of a single traumatic event can be triggered by many things including sights, smells, and sounds but are less likely to be triggered by relationships or attachments.

Veterans who experience PTSD were unable to process the event, leaving their bodies in a fight-or-flight mode. This mental and physical response is characterized by adrenaline spikes and additional symptoms that can have a long-term effect on the brain and body. An estimated one in 10 veterans experiences PTSD, which is significantly higher than for civilians.


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PTSD Symptoms

  • Avoid triggering situations and people
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive thoughts and nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Negative thought patterns
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Hypervigilance
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Loss of interest in hobbies

What Is C-PTSD?

On the other hand, complex post-traumatic stress disorder can develop after a series of traumatic events that occur over time or one prolonged event. This can include sustaining combat-related injuries, being tortured or imprisoned as a POW, or surviving a repeated occurrence of military-sexual trauma (MST). Although many of the symptoms are similar to PTSD, they tend to be more enduring and extreme which can affect a person’s fundamental understanding of the world and themselves.

Additionally, the International Classification of Diseases 11 (ICD-11) classifies C-PTSD as a separate condition from PTSD but the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders five (DSM-5) does not. This can make it difficult for some veterans to get diagnosed with C-PTSD due to the conflicting distinctions and overlapping symptoms. Although many mental health professionals recognize it as a distinct mental health condition because traditional PTSD doesn’t fully capture some of the unique characteristics present in those who experienced repeated trauma.

C-PTSD Symptoms

  • Troubling controlling emotions such as intense anger and sadness
  • Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
  • Inability to trust others
  • Flashbacks
  • Lapses in memory
  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and emptiness
  • Episodes of dissociation
  • Sleep disturbances and nightmares
  • Hyperarousal
  • Somatic problems

The Difference Between C-PTSD vs. PTSD

Different types of trauma affect the way your body and mind cope according to the nature of the trauma and the occurrence of traumatic events. The biggest difference between PTSD and complex PTSD is whether or not trauma occurred once or multiple times over a prolonged period. When comparing C-PTSD vs. PTSD, the types of symptoms and their severity help mental health professionals make a diagnosis.

For veterans who have survived a traumatic experience, many of the lasting mental and physical symptoms can be intense and overwhelming. Without professional help, these symptoms can worsen and impact various areas of your life. Reprocessing techniques can help you work through traumatic events and feelings with the guidance of a mental health professional. Learning how to overcome your trauma can help you live a happy and fulfilling life with tools for long-term recovery.

Is It Possible to Have C-PTSD and PTSD?

When looking at C-PTSD vs. PTSD, there are several differences and similarities. However, it’s also possible to have both and it’s more common than you would think. For instance, you can develop PTSD after witnessing a fatal car accident in your youth. Then as an adult, you can develop C-PTSD following a deployment due to your combat exposure. As a result, you have a combination of the two from separate events.

Additionally, trauma can be compounded over time. This refers to how C-PTSD is often the result of repeated trauma that is experienced one after the other. What can start as PTSD following a single traumatic event can later be included in a series of traumatic events. This can result in more severe symptoms that are more aligned with the experience of complex PTSD.

Symptoms of trauma may seem to disappear only to re-emerge months or years later when triggered by a change in your environment. For example, getting stuck in a large crowd of people, fireworks, and experiencing certain feelings can cause symptoms to return. When this happens, it can affect your relationships, your ability to work, and your overall mental wellness. Without help, this can cause the cycle of trauma to continue.

Treatment Options for C-PTSD vs. PTSD

Treatment Options for C-PTSD vs. PTSD

The treatment options for C-PTSD vs. PTSD utilizes many of the same treatment modalities but emphasizes skill building. These treatment options help veterans improve their ability to manage strong emotions, maintain supportive relationships, and address feelings of worthlessness and guilt. These trauma-informed therapy options facilitate long-term recovery and help veterans discover coping mechanisms.

Some treatment modalities designed for overcoming trauma include:

Moreover, almost half of all individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, which include those with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Coping mechanisms can be difficult to develop, especially for veterans with C-PTSD because it affects the brain and body long term.

Drugs and alcohol can create a temporary escape from painful and unwanted memories or feelings. However, turning to drugs and alcohol prevents you from processing your trauma and can lead to addiction, resulting in co-occurring disorders. Therefore it’s important to seek a residential rehab program or intensive outpatient program to begin recovery.

Where Veterans Can Find Help for C-PTSD and PTSD

Now that you know the differences as well as the similarities between C-PTSD vs. PTSD, you’re one step closer to getting the help you deserve. Heroes’ Mile is a veteran recovery center for veterans by veterans. Here, you can share your experiences with others who understand what you’re going through. Heroes’ Mile provides a safe, judgment-free environment for those struggling with trauma to start their recovery journey. For more information on how our treatment programs can help you, reach out to our admissions office at 888-838-6692. Or you can fill out a confidential contact form online. It’s never too late to heal from your trauma.


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