Post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are similar, yet distinct mental health conditions that are often confused with one another. Both conditions can involve anxiety, avoidance, and extreme stress in response to witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. There are differences, however, in symptom frequency, duration, and intensity when comparing the two reactions. 

Read on to learn more about the nuances between PTS vs PTSD.

What is the Difference Between PTS & PTSD?

PTS and PTSD are characterized by similar symptoms. They can cause you to feel fear and nervousness, have nightmares, and avoid people, things, and situations that are associated with a traumatic event you experienced in the past. What’s different about the two conditions is how intense symptoms are, the duration of symptoms, and what type of treatment is needed and/or will be effective. 

Despite their similarities, there are a couple primary differences between PTS and PTSD. First, the length and strength of symptoms will be more intense with PTSD. PTS symptoms will generally self-resolve within days or weeks. Because there’s a lack of prolonged symptoms, PTS isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition. Comparatively, PTSD symptoms will last for more than a month.

PTSD is an officially diagnosed disorder, meaning most people will suffer from more severe and chronic symptoms. Note that PTS can sometimes be referred to as PTSS (post-traumatic stress syndrome), so don’t be confused if you hear the longer name occasionally. 

Other key differences between PTS vs PTSD include:

Stress is normal and healthy, and stress responses are tools our bodies use to protect us from future trauma. PTS is common after military deployment or exposure to another highly stressful event. As the symptoms aren’t as intense, PTS often will self-resolve without the need for professional help or medication.

PTSD symptoms are more extreme, repetitive, and often cause problems in everyday functioning. PTSD symptoms do not usually go away on their own, and they can last for months, years, or a lifetime without proper intervention.

Another key difference in PTS vs PTSD is PTS doesn’t typically involve some of the more extreme symptoms of PTSD like vivid flashbacks, defeated self-confidence, or suicidal thoughts.

Finally, most people with PTS do not develop PTSD (although it can increase their chances), and developing PTSD does not require first having PTS.

PTS meaning

Experts know that PTS occurs within 30 days of going through or witnessing a repeated trauma. Though it’s not a diagnosed condition, PTS is accepted as a severe health issue for people who experience it. PTS symptoms can onset due to common stressful occurrences like automobile accidents or spousal death. It can also be caused by rare events, like being abducted or engaging in deadly combat. Virtually anyone who experiences a scary, traumatic situation can exhibit one or more PTS symptoms as a result. 

It’s very important to note that it’s normal (and can even be healthy) to have physical and emotional responses to trauma. You might avoid things that stress you out and remind you of that time. You may feel a sense of dread when you encounter a situation that takes your mind back. 

The natural response we have to stressful experiences can train us to be more aware of our surroundings or of what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s intended to help us avoid future dangers. Healthy fight-or-flight responses protect us by tensing muscles, enhancing focus, speeding up our breathing, slowing down digestion, and increasing blood delivery throughout our body.

PTS symptoms can be very intense, but they’re typically short-lived and don’t significantly detract from quality of life over a long period of time. 

“Post-traumatic stress syndrome is a normal response to abnormal events. Minds are not meant to experience traumatic events, so the symptoms that present following such events can feel overwhelming and scary. The best thing you can do when experiencing post-traumatic stress is to feel all of your feelings and actively try to not avoid them. In other words, it’s best to avoid avoidance.” 

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

PTSD meaning

Although this is not the same for everyone, PTSD causes can include witnessing, experiencing, or surviving a traumatic life event.

Typical PTSD symptoms include reliving the trauma through nightmares, constant waking thoughts, and flashbacks. People with PTSD may avoid certain places, people, objects, or situations that remind them of their traumatic experience.

PTSD symptoms that might require professional intervention can include persistent and intense:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Flashbacks
  • Aggression
  • Nightmares

While these symptoms are similar to what someone with PTS might experience, the key differences are symptom duration and intensity. PTSD is characterized by long-lasting, severe reactions and symptoms that significantly interfere with the ability to function day-to-day.

What the DSM-5 Says About PTS & PTSD

PTSD and PTS meaning: According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) provides a checklist for clinicians to use as a basis for a PTSD diagnosis. 

The criteria for a PTSD diagnosis includes:

  • Exposure to trauma
  • At least 1 intrusion symptom
  • At least 1 avoidance symptom
  • At least 2 adverse changes in feelings or mood
  • At least 2 adverse changes in reactivity or arousal

In order to diagnose PTSD, the above symptom combinations must occur for at least 30 consecutive days and need to be the cause of significant interruptions to performance in life.

Why did they change PTSD to PTS?

PTSD vs PTS: Published in 2013, the most current and updated version of the DSM-5 reclassified PTSD from an anxiety disorder to a trauma and stress disorder. The change was made to expand diagnostic criteria and include soldiers who wouldn’t have been diagnosed with PTSD according to older standards. The new criteria increased the number of diagnosable symptoms from 17 to 20.

Experts note that diagnostic criteria changes from the old to the new manual include:

  • A new diagnostic category called: Trauma and Stressor-related Disorders
  • Relocating PTSD from the anxiety disorders category to this new one
  • Eliminating components of the definition of trauma that were considered subjective  
  • Strengthening of the definitions of trauma
  • Increasing and rearranging symptoms criteria
  • Changing and adding criteria and specifiers

Finding Support for Post-Traumatic Stress

PTS vs PTSD summary: PTSD causes unwanted, repetitive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, dampened emotions, mood swings, and dissociative symptoms that last for more than a month. While PTS and PTSD do share some overlapping symptoms, PTS syndrome can self-resolve for many people. PTSD, by contrast, is a mental health condition that generally requires diagnosis and treatment. 

PTS very often goes undiagnosed, but as we come to better understand it, we’re learning to detect it earlier. One way we can do this is by using assessment tools like the PTSS-14, which is a questionnaire used to screen for PTS. This can be especially helpful in people who have a higher risk of developing PTSD, as early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce or prevent further repercussions of the aftermath of trauma.  

Therapy: Sometimes PTS doesn’t require professional intervention (though PTSD almost always does). However, if symptoms don’t resolve on their own, or if you’re having difficulty coping, effective treatment options might be available. Types of therapy for PTSD can include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for PTSD, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and other effective talk therapy models. Each of these types of therapy are very beneficial when it comes to how to treat PTSD, in regaining your life and healing from the trauma. 

Medication: Often therapy is used in conjunction with prescription medications to treat PTSD. Like many mental health conditions, symptoms of PTSD are likely to progressively worsen with time.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder has an incredibly high treatment success rate. I strongly encourage you to find a trauma-informed provider who can walk with you through your recovery journey.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Getting help to address any mental health condition is something you should always consider if you’re struggling. Talkspace makes therapy simple, with a convenient online therapy platform that’s affordable, easy to access, and takes the stress out of the therapy experience many people are familiar with. 

Learn more about how Talkspace can help you navigate and cope with stressful life events, from relationships, to trauma, to any type of mental health condition — our licensed therapists are skilled and ready to listen, so you can heal and get back to living. 

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

Reviewed On: June 9, 2022