The Difference Between Complex PTSD and PTSD

Living with the symptoms of PTSD can often be debilitating and limit your life. If you have tried to get treatment for PTSD but haven’t achieved much success, it may be because you have a more complex form of PTSD. Understanding the difference between complex PTSD and PTSD will help you get the treatment you need to get back to feeling whole again.

What is the Difference Between Complex PTSD and PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first identified as a condition occurring with war veterans. As research into the disorder continued, it was further discovered that PTSD could be triggered by any number of events involving trauma, such as natural disasters, loss of a loved one, near-death experiences, acts of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse or violence. However, when traumatic events are experienced repeatedly, it can lead to a more complex form of PTSD.


Repeated and ongoing traumatic events, such as sexual abuse or physical abuse, can lead to a more complex and intense type of PTSD, referred to as complex PTSD or C-PTSD. C-PTSD may result from exposure to multiple traumas experienced over a relatively short period of time, or one trauma experienced over a long period of time.

Causes of C-PTSD and PTSD

Both complex PTSD and PTSD are triggered after experiencing a traumatic event, like seeing a loved one die in a severe car accident. That event can be something that one relives over and over through nightmares and flashbacks that can lead to insomnia. However, with complex PTSD, as we previously mentioned, the event would have to be repeated and ongoing to reach this more intense level of PTSD. Survivors of domestic abuse may be diagnosed with C-PTSD as a result of enduring repeated and ongoing physical violence. Furthermore C-PTSD is more common in children, adolescents, and teenagers exposed to abusive environments. The long-term effects of C-PTSD do have developmental and psychological implications that can carry over into adulthood. 

What are the Symptoms of C-PTSD?

Complex PTSD has the same symptoms as PTSD, such as flashbacks, nightmares, hyperarousal, and avoidance, as well as the following symptoms:

  • Detachment – The individual will disconnect themselves from the trauma to the point where they can forget about it entirely because they have repressed the memories of the repeated events.
  • Low Self-Esteem – Individuals with C-PTSD view themselves negatively. They feel different from their peers and other people. They can feel ashamed, helpless, guilty, or hopeless. Their outlook on any situation is often pessimistic. 
  • Relationship Difficulties – A person with C-PTSD can find it hard to trust others. They may avoid healthy relationships in favor of more abusive relationships since they are most familiar with them. 
  • Emotional Regulation Problems – It is not uncommon for someone with complex PTSD to lose control over their emotions. They can have anger management issues, cry and become depressed unexpectedly, or even inflict self-harm to punish themself. 
  • Negative Life View – Someone experiencing complex PTSD can easily lose all hope and even question their core values and beliefs. If they are religious, they usually turn away from religion because they feel their god abandoned them and did not protect them from repeated traumatic experiences. 

These symptoms can cause difficulties in altering one’s ability to develop family and personal relationships, engage in social settings, and impact educational and occupational development. 

How is C-PTSD Diagnosed?

Complex PTSD is diagnosed by your doctor or mental health professional based on the symptoms and information you provide. Initially, they may diagnose you with PTSD. However, if you can share that the trauma occurred multiple times, they can adjust the diagnosis to complex PTSD. 

There is some evidence to suggest that other underlying conditions can contribute to the onset of C-PTSD. These conditions may help a mental health provider provide a C-PTSD diagnosis:

  • Neurological functions — how the brain responds to stress or regulates responses to stressful situations.
  • Environmental factors — a particularly dangerous job or abusive home environment may contribute to C-PTSD.
  • Underlying or concurrent mental health disorder — anxiety and depression can worsen PTSD symptoms.

What Causes C-PTSD?

Complex PTSD is caused by repetitive and severe abuse and traumatic experiences over an extended period. The events typically occur when the individual is most vulnerable, such as when they are a child, adolescent, or teen. However, C-PTSD can occur at any point in a person’s life, when exposed to recurrent trauma.

Traumas that contribute to PTSD and C-PTSD

  • Sexual Abuse
  • Physical Abuse
  • Verbal/Emotional Abuse
  • Child Neglect
  • Child Abandonment
  • Torture

Treatment Options for C-PTSD and PTSD

Treatment for C-PTSD is similar to treatment for PTSD. Many treatment options will help you learn coping skills to handle trigger responses, as well as help reduce or mitigate day-to-day symptoms of PTSD.

Treatment plans could include:

  • Psychotherapy – The individual with complex PTSD can start to identify and confront their traumatic experiences, negative thoughts, and negative patterns while learning effective coping skills. 
  • Medications – Some people benefit from the use of medications during treatment for C-PTSD.
  • Non-Invasive Drug-Free Therapies – MeRt therapy, TMS therapy, and PMB therapy are other therapies that can be used to help treat complex PTSD.

Mental Health Treatment in Southern California


If you are struggling with symptoms of C-PTSD or PTSD — or know someone who is — there is hope. Neuro Wellness Spa offers a breadth of treatment options to help you overcome your trauma and get back to living a fulfilling life. For more information about C-PTSD treatment, contact us to schedule a free consultation appointment today!

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