*Disclaimer: This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a therapist/client relationship with Sahra Riccardi, ATR-BC, LPC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in treating PTSD or C-PTSD. If you are interested in Online Therapy in Pennsylvania for PTSD or C-PTSD, or becoming a client of Embodied Expressions Therapy, please connect with me by visiting:
Understanding the differences between CPTSD & PTSD Part 1
Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress
Experiencing traumatic events can have a significant impact on our lives. Most often, the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), evokes thoughts of soldiers returning home from war. However, trauma can come from all sorts of events and situations. Additionally, each person may respond to similar events in a different way.
PTSD and C-PTSD are two different ways to understand the impact that has happened to a person following exposure to traumatic events.
Most of us have experienced some form of post-traumatic stress (“acute stress”). Consider the period of time following a car accident or hearing disturbing health news. For many, the impact or initial shock of these events dissipates within a relatively short period of time (days or weeks). For others, the body can become “stuck” in a traumatized state (months or years). This can have devastating effects.
The easiest way to differentiate between PTSD and C-PTSD is to consider how the stress response got started. Was it “simple” or “complex?"
PTSD often results from single-instance or single-situation events.
C-PTSD forms over long periods of exposure to harm or neglect.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD generally occurs after a specific traumatic event or context that is shocking, scary, or dangerous. Often this event can elicit strong survival responses in the body (the body believes there is a threat to survival).
This can be thought of as a “simple” trauma because it is clear what situation caused the post-traumatic stress response to occur.
In PTSD, a person’s life was “generally ok” until the traumatic event happened.
What causes PTSD?
Common events or contexts which can result in PTSD include:
-Threat of bodily harm (ex: being threatened with a weapon)
-Experiencing a crime (mugging, home intrusion)
-Witnessing violence (including occupational exposure such as first responders)
-Medical trauma such as a difficult birth or consent violations
-Loss of a loved one
-Kidnapping or Hostage situations
-Serious accidents (car or plane crashes, falls, construction accidents)
These events generally involve a limited time of exposure.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD or CPTSD)
Often, CPTSD involves prolonged exposure to traumatic events. This commonly occurs in childhood through exposure to dysfunction within the family or with early caretakers. Children are powerless and unable to remove themselves from the threat. Most often, they are dependent on the abusers.
In CPTSD, the trauma often begins early in life (where important self-regulation and social skills are being developed). This means that skills for healthy attachment and self-soothing that make it easier to cope with stressors as adults might not have had a chance to develop. This can lead to increased vulnerability to future trauma.
This can be thought of as a “complex” trauma because it is NOT clear what specific situation caused the post-traumatic stress response to occur. There is no one single event that caused the response. Rather, complex trauma emerges from a series of events/exposures.
In C-PTSD, things were never really “ok” or haven’t been “ok” in a very long time. Survivors’ bodies never had a chance to move out of “survival mode” because the threat was constantly present, or the person could not see an end in sight. This makes even “simple” traumas occurring later in life more complex because there is often no “safe time” to come back to and resource from.
What causes C-PTSD?
CPTSD is often a result of trauma inflicted by a person who was supposed to be safe. This is usually a parent or caregiver. In these households, the child grows up feeling alone, like no one cares for them, or that no one is there to protect them.
Common events or contexts which can result in CPTSD include:
-Caregiver with a substance abuse issue
-Abuse by a sibling
These events/contexts do NOT have a limited time of exposure. They may be lifelong or ongoing well into adulthood. One of the most insidious differences between PTSD and C-PTSD for survivors is ongoing contact with the abuser. It is a lot easier to avoid triggers associated with a single-instance trauma than a lifetime of traumatic events. For many with C-PTSD, there is some form of contact with family members who either inflicted abuse or did not intervene, making recovery more “complex.”
If you have experienced any of the events discussed in this article, please know that you are not alone and support is available. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in treating PTSD or C-PTSD. If you are interested in Online Therapy in Pennsylvania for PTSD or C-PTSD, or becoming a client of Embodied Expressions Therapy, please connect with me by visiting:
Part 2 of this series will address different symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress and Complex Post Traumatic Stress. Stay tuned and be kind to yourself!