Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that results after experiencing trauma. Common symptoms include poor sleep, fear, flashbacks, anxiety, irritability, and a sense of isolation. However, not all PTSD diagnoses are the same. Those living with the disorder often experience PTSD symptoms uniquely.
PTSD is a single condition that presents in distinct subtypes and severity, all of which largely depend on your trauma and your symptoms. To better understand, let’s dive in deeper and examine each of the types of PTSD. If you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, your deeper understanding of each subtype can help you know what to expect in terms of symptoms as well as the best techniques to treat your condition.
What Are the Different Types of PTSD?
Everyone responds to stress in their own way. Two people who experience the same trauma can have vastly different reactions and recovery processes.
It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will eventually develop PTSD. It’s also important to point out that many people with PTSD may not even recognize they have it. The first step is exploring the different forms of PTSD, which include:
- Uncomplicated PTSD
- Complex PTSD
- Comorbid PTSD
However, it’s necessary to first look at the normal stress and acute stress responses.
“PTSD has really evolved over time as we continue to learn more through research. It started with ‘shell shock’ and originally applied to mostly military personnel and veterans. Now, we know that it’s more and that it’s not population specific. With that, treatment for PTSD has evolved to accommodate the evolution of this diagnosis.”Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Normal stress response
It’s natural to go through periods of stress during life, and each stressor can elicit a wide range of responses. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event recently (or even in your past), you might begin to notice several symptoms throughout your healing.
Common symptoms of a normal stress response can include:
- Emotional numbness
- Painful memories
- Starting to feel like you want to avoid anyone or anything that reminds you of the experience
Your stress response is part of your internal protection system. When you feel stress or trauma, your body naturally enters fight-or-flight mode. This causes your senses to shift into high gear as you prepare to either run away (flight) or attempt to face whatever the threat is (fight). Once the threat is gone, your body returns to normal. The effects of the stressor are soon lessened or forgotten, and they won’t continue affecting your daily life.
While it’s true that the onset of PTSD can begin with a normal stress response, this doesn’t mean a normal stress response will lead to an intense form of PTSD. Most often, you can recover from a normal stress response in just a few weeks.
Acute stress response
Acute stress responses are severe reactions to stress that begin very quickly but don’t generally last very long. These strong stress reactions usually occur relatively soon after an unexpected trauma, like a car accident or losing a loved one.
Acute stress response symptoms can be psychological or physical.
Psychological symptoms might include:
- Depressed mood
- Poor sleep
- Emotional numbness
- Inability to concentrate
- The desire to be alone
- Recurrent dreams
Physical symptoms can also be present and often include things like:
- Heart palpitations
- Upset stomach
- Difficulty breathing
Research shows that acute distress disorder explains the different types of acute stress reactions (ASRs) that may occur. These reactions typically happen in no less than three days and no more than about four weeks after an experience.
In contrast, when reactions continue for a longer period of time, say more than four weeks, they may meet some of the criteria needed for a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. There are three types of PTSD that all generally share similar symptoms characterized by intrusion, avoidance, heightened arousal and marked changes in mood and cognition. However, each has its own nuances and situations that put each in their own category.
1. Uncomplicated PTSD
Uncomplicated PTSD is a commonly diagnosed and highly treatable mental health condition. It typically results after experiencing one single traumatic event, like being in a car accident or experiencing a violent assault for instance. The major distinction of this form of PTSD is that it exists without other mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression.
Common symptoms of uncomplicated PTSD can include:
- Mood swings
- Feeling unsafe
- Avoiding anything to do with or memory of the situation
Uncomplicated PTSD is often the simplest form of PTSD to diagnose. It’s typically treatable with talk therapy (psychotherapy) modalities, including cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD (CBT).
2. Complex PTSD
Complex PTSD is the most severe form of the condition. It occurs in individuals who have experienced prolonged and intense forms of trauma. Often, the trauma may have lasted for months or even years, and it could stem from physical, verbal, or sexual abuse — or, in some cases, a combination of types of abuse. CPTSD often includes other diagnoses like substance use and eating disorders. It is also commonly misdiagnosed as a personality disorder.
Treatment for complex PTSD can take much longer than uncomplicated PTSD. A well-structured management plan including CBT, exposure therapy, or another form of psychotherapy, possibly along with carefully-monitored prescription medications, are typically required to combat this debilitating mental health condition. Recovery can take months, or in some cases, years.
3. Comorbid PTSD
Comorbid PTSD refers to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that are present along with other mental health conditions. It’s really not uncommon to have PTSD with one or more other conditions. In fact, according to research, other psychiatric disorders often co-occur with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Epidemiologic survey data from the Medical University of South Carolina study shows that a large number of people living with PTSD also meet the criteria for one or more additional psychiatric disorders. Further, a healthy percentage have three or more other psychiatric conditions.
Some of the more common co-occurring conditions that might present along with PTSD can include:
- Panic disorder
- Anxiety disorder
- Substance abuse disorder
- Major depressive disorder
Treatment for comorbid PTSD typically involves CBT or another form of psychotherapy, PTSD medication, a desire to improve the situation, and a willingness to make certain lifestyle changes that support, encourage, and positively impact recovery.
How to Treat Different Types of PTSD
Because everyone responds to stress and trauma differently and in their own way, there are several effective modalities that can be used to treat PTSD. That said, most often treatment usually involves some type of talk therapy for PTSD in conjunction with medications like antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, benzodiazepines, or beta-blockers.
Positive lifestyle changes are usually encouraged as well — things like practicing mindfulness meditation, doing deep breathing exercises, eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, being physically active, and replacing avoidable stressors with activities for personal growth are all known to be effective in treating the several different types of PTSD.
“Treatment for PTSD often includes intense therapy in conjunction with medication. There is no one universal therapy that works for all individuals struggling with PTSD, because no one person is the same. It’s important to work with a trustworthy therapist to find the right method for the person.”Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Which Type of PTSD Do I Have?
If you think you or a loved one might be living with any of the forms of PTSD we’ve discussed here, there are various resources in place to help you, including:
If you have PTSD and need support, asking your family doctor for a referral to a licensed mental health professional is the first step. They can work with you to define, understand, and help you learn to better cope with your symptoms. Remember that all types of PTSD are treatable, and the sooner you begin treating your PTSD, the more likely you are to experience a rapid, thorough recovery.
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