How Is Complex PTSD Different from Single Event PTSD?

In recent years, mental health professionals have begun drawing a distinction between complex PTSD and single event PTSD. Traditionally, the diagnosis for PTSD requires that a person suffers a single traumatic event. But some people develop post-traumatic stress after ongoing exposure to a traumatic situation.

Complex PTSD isn’t recognized as its own disorder in the DSM, but some mental health professionals believe it must be treated differently from single event PTSD. So how exactly is complex PTSD different from single event PTSD?

It’s important to know that complex PTSD may present with more extreme symptoms than a single PTSD-causing event. Complex PTSD also tends to present with more intense neurological changes, and many people experience dissociative symptoms.

Because the symptoms of complex PTSD often combine symptoms of traditional PTSD and dissociative disorders, it’s important that the condition be correctly identified and treated. Some traditional PTSD therapies are helpful with complex PTSD, but others will address only a small portion of the problem.

How Is Complex PTSD Different from Single Event PTSD?

With single event PTSD, one event leads to the development of trauma-related symptoms. Some examples would be:

  • Witnessing an explosion or being involved in a shooting
  • Seeing a person die, especially unexpectedly
  • Unexpectedly losing a loved one
  • Being physically or sexually assaulted
  • Being physically injured or having a near-death experience

That is by no means an exhaustive list of PTSD causes. It does touch on some of the most common ones, though.

Complex PTSD occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed to traumatic events. The most common cause of this condition is ongoing emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. People may develop complex PTSD after an abusive childhood, or they may develop it in adulthood if they’re exposed to a toxic environment.

Some causes of complex PTSD include:

  • Being neglected as a child
  • Being abused in early childhood
  • Suffering domestic abuse
  • Being a survivor of human trafficking
  • Being captured and held prisoner during war times
  • Living in an area that’s unstable, violent, or war-torn

Alternate Disorders

Right now, the DSM-5 does not identify complex PTSD as its own disorder. However, the International Classification of Diseases does.

Some health professionals may choose to diagnose another disorder instead. It’s very common for people with complex PTSD symptoms to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder or a dissociative disorder.

This is because complex PTSD often leads to struggles with regulating emotions. It may also lead to a pattern of unstable relationships, particularly when someone struggles to trust or communicate with their partner. The hypervigilance of complex PTSD can make it very difficult to relax.

There has been criticism of diagnosing PTSD sufferers with BPD, though, because the conditions have differences. One important characteristic of BPD is that the person has an unstable sense of self. With PTSD, people tend to have a concept of self, but their view of themselves is very negative.

Some complex PTSD sufferers may be diagnosed with OSDD, for “other specified dissociative disorder.” This is diagnosed when a person experiences dissociation, but they don’t have the memory loss characteristic of dissociative identity disorder.

Symptoms of Both Disorders

Traditional PTSD and complex PTSD have a large symptom overlap. Commonly seen in both disorders are:

  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoidance of situations that might trigger flashbacks
  • Nausea, dizziness, and other physical symptoms of illness when thinking about the trauma
  • Constant vigilance and an excess of adrenaline
  • A belief that danger is more prevalent than it is
  • An inability or struggle to trust other people
  • Difficulty concentrating and sleeping
  • Easy upset when exposed to loud noises

A person with complex PTSD may experience more core changes to their self than someone with PTSD. PTSD can also cause these symptoms, but individuals with complex PTSD are more likely to:

  • Have a negative view of the self
  • Lose faith in beliefs or the world
  • Struggle to regulate emotions and emotional responses
  • Struggle to maintain healthy relationships
  • Dissociate from the trauma, which leads to feelings of detachment and sometimes memory loss
  • Become preoccupied with the abusive party

These aren’t the only symptoms of PTSD and complex PTSD. But they are the most common. Our counselors are available at 833-762-3739 when you want to reach out for help.