What’s the Difference Between Prolonged PTSD and Anxiety?

Man looking up wearing black mask

After a traumatic event, it’s not uncommon to feel symptoms of anxiety. When your world has turned upside down, your emotions need time to process the impact. This is a part of life, and it’s natural to be traumatized after events like environmental disasters, sudden illness, violence/abuse, or life-threatening accidents. But at some point, we start to wonder if a normal range of anxiety has become a prolonged state of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anxiety is your body’s “fight or flight” response to danger. The bodily sensations of heart palpitations, sweating, decreased appetite, and increased blood pressure are nature’s way of helping you escape from a harmful situation. After stages of shock and denial, many people begin to feel sadness, anger, helplessness, and other emotions that help them make sense of their new reality. For those who develop PTSD, the symptoms of anxiety will persist and their brains will not be able to accept that they’re now safe.

How Do I Know I’m Experiencing Prolonged PTSD, Not Anxiety?

Signs that you’re experiencing PTSD and not a normal range of anxiety include vivid flashbacks or dreams about the traumatic event that cause high levels of distress, changing behaviours to avoid being triggered, feeling numb, and staying alert or hypervigilant to potential threats. These symptoms are intrusive and will interrupt daily life. They can also affect relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Getting support from a therapist and connecting with other survivors can help to lessen the pain.

Whether you’re experiencing anxiety or PTSD, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. In the course of an entire human lifetime, traumatic events are largely unavoidable and most of us do not go through the world unscathed by moments of intense stress. It’s estimated that 60% of men and 50% of women in the U.S. will encounter at least one traumatic event. However, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. In fact, only 4% of men and 10% of women will have a disordered response to stress caused by trauma.

How long does PTSD last?

In research on prolonged PTSD, the statistics get smaller. A study on rape survivors found that 94% had symptoms of PTSD after a week of the assault and by nine months that number declined less than 25%. It’s generally believed that the average duration for PTSD is three years if the proper treatment is received and five years without treatment. Failure to receive psychiatric support within six years will likely result in a more challenging recovery. This is why we shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to licensed mental health professionals after trauma. We deserve to be assessed for PTSD and adequately cared for — there are no awards for sticking it out alone or suffering in silence.

There are several factors that are linked to prolonged PTSD. For example, alcohol and drug abuse will both exacerbate the symptoms and mask their severity. Getting into a pattern of self-medicating to push away distress, rather than deal with it, only makes things worse in the long run. A therapist can help you discover healthy coping skills that actually do what you’re hoping substances will do. If you have resistance or difficulties in adjusting your coping skills, your therapist will be there to support you without judgement. It can be hard just to breathe when you’d rather drink, but all of the science shows us that the former leads to better long-term mental health.

Comorbidity and PTSD

Other factors that can influence the severity and length of response to a traumatic event include repeated experiences with trauma and other coexisting conditions such as depression, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Prolonged PTSD can reveal that other issues need to be addressed in treatment and finding a therapist with knowledge about comorbidity (i.e. simultaneous presence of two or more conditions) will be important for recovery. For instance, you may need to spend time working on your depressive symptoms before addressing PTSD. Treatment is usually layered and non-linear. We heal in our own time, in our own way. The bigger threats to our mental health should usually be addressed first, however. For example, if we’re managing suicidal ideation due to severe depression, that will take precedence over PTSD-related fear of public spaces.

Seeking Help is Crucial

Understanding the difference between anxiety, PTSD, and prolonged PTSD is a crucial first step in educating ourselves about the effects of trauma. However, identifying symptoms can be easier said than done. Research has found that a major blocker to getting support involves individuals who believe they don’t have a problem. Other obstacles are treatment cost, lack of knowledge that resources exist, stigma, fear of forced hospitalization, language barriers, and poor experiences with facilities or quality of care. This is why it’s especially important and helpful to share information with our community and take action when a loved one is suffering. Once anxiety has crossed over into the threshold of PTSD, the data is clear that treatment makes all the difference.

We don’t have to suffer alone and hope that things get better. We deserve the support to get through PTSD and come out stronger on the other side.

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