For many people, traumatic experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (CPTSD). These conditions often make it more difficult for people to experience freedom in their lives and their relationships. The good news is that there is hope for those with PTSD and CPTSD.
These two conditions are similar, but the differences can change the symptoms you experience and your path to healing.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the term psychologists use to describe when people continue to feel the effects of trauma well after the traumatic event has occurred. Most people will experience some sort of traumatic event in their lifetime, but not everyone goes on to develop PTSD. Any number of events can cause trauma, including:
- Being the victim of a crime
- Natural disasters
- Living through a war
- Military combat
- Sexual assault
- Death of a loved one
Feeling shocked, numb, or intensely emotional after these events is normal, but trauma becomes PTSD when these effects last for months or years. If you’re wondering if you or someone you love is experiencing PTSD, look out for symptoms in four main categories.
Sudden, unwanted thoughts and feelings are categorized as intrusive symptoms. They are typically disruptive and upsetting but can be improved with treatment.
- Flashbacks to the traumatic event
- Recurring nightmares
- Distress when faced with reminders of the traumatic event
The fear associated with PTSD may lead you to avoid people, places, or things that remind you of the traumatic event. You may also attempt to avoid thoughts or feelings about the event.
Mood and Cognitive Symptoms
Living with PTSD can take a toll on your general well-being. Mood-related symptoms include:
- Negative self-beliefs
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- A persistent negative mood
- Sense or feeling of detachment from others
Some of the most commonly known symptoms of PTSD are related to overactivity in the nervous system. What’s important to know about these symptoms is that they reduce quality of life and can sometimes lead to substance misuse. Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD and seeking treatment can help you regain control over your life. These symptoms include:
- Startling easily
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or angry outbursts
What Is CPTSD?
CPTSD stands for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Instead, it’s a term that trained trauma professionals use to describe a certain subset of people with PTSD.
CPTSD is typically caused by long-term, repeated traumatic experiences rather than a single event. When trauma is experienced over and over again, it can lead to increasingly severe symptoms and is often harder to treat than typical PTSD.
Common causes of CPTSD include:
- Domestic abuse
- Childhood abuse
- Sex trafficking
While CPTSD often has very different symptoms than PTSD, it is still treatable with the right methods. Many people with CPTSD struggle to find recovery from traditional treatment methods, but innovative treatments can help break down the barrier to recovery that many people face.
Differences Between PTSD and CPTSD
Although there is significant overlap, these two mental health challenges have distinct differences that change the course of recovery and treatment. People with CPTSD are still diagnosed with PTSD and share many of the symptoms outlined above, but they often have unique symptoms that people with PTSD do not.
People living with CPTSD can experience some or all of the same symptoms of PTSD, but in addition, they can experience:
- Dissociation, or feeling like they are outside of their own body
- Difficulty controlling their emotions
- Suicidal thoughts or ideation
- An inability to form strong and healthy relationships
- Deeply held feelings of shame, guilt, or failure
- Intense distrust of others
These symptoms can often complicate the traditional treatment methods offered for PTSD treatment, such as talk therapy. People with CPTSD are hesitant to trust others and may struggle to build the therapeutic relationship required to make meaningful progress.
Treatments for PTSD and CPTSD
The standard approach to treating PTSD and CPTSD uses two main methods:
- Talk Therapy
- Multiple forms of talk therapy are used to treat PTSD. The most common of these approaches include:
- Prolonged exposure therapy
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Parts work therapy
The goal of these therapies is to help people face their traumas and learn how to respond to triggers effectively. These treatments are not easy. They are designed to provoke a sense of discomfort and help people learn how to control and manage the emotions they feel as a result.
While they are incredibly beneficial to helping people recover, trauma treatments are often difficult for people experiencing PTSD or CPTSD to complete, as avoiding the discomfort brought on by trauma is a key symptom of the disorder.
Certain medications can help ease the process of therapy and help people to reduce the uncomfortable symptoms they experience. Medication is not a cure for PTSD or CPTSD, but it can make recovery easier and help people feel better.
Novel Evidence-Based Treatments for PTSD and CPTSD
Having answered the questions “What is PTSD?” and “What is CPTSD?” it’s easy to see why conventional treatment methods often prove ineffective in helping people recover. The symptoms of avoidance, difficulty trusting others, and struggling to form meaningful relationships can create serious barriers on the road to recovery.
Yet new treatment methods developed in the last few years can provide tangible results for people despite these challenges. These novel treatments take a less provocative but more direct approach to healing than conventional therapies.
Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (Deep TMS)
Deep TMS is an intervention that directly targets brain regions affected by PTSD and CPTSD. Regions of the brain that are less active among those with PTSD and CPTSD are stimulated directly using electromagnetic impulses. These can lead to lasting changs that promote recovery.
The process of Deep TMS may be scientifically complex but it’s straightforward for patients. First, our team maps the patient’s brain — identifying underactive regions of the brain that will become the targets of treatment. Next, the client puts on a specialized, helmet-like device that contains powerful electromagnetic coils.
These coils can create electrical stimulation between brain cells, which causes them to become more active in the future. This can alleviate many of the symptoms of PTSD and create lasting changes.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a form of talk therapy that uses specialized tools and techniques to help people process their trauma. By using a technique called bilateral stimulation, both hemispheres of the brain become activated during therapy. This can help people speak more openly about their traumas and make progress in talk therapy faster.
Bilateral stimulation can be produced in several ways. Your therapist may have you track a moving light from side to side, listen to alternating tones from right to left using headphones, or provide rhythmic tapping on your knees or shoulders. By bringing physical sensations from right to left, both brain hemispheres are active, which can help traumatic memories become “unstuck” and easier to process.
Stellate Ganglion Blocks
A stellate ganglion block is a brief medical procedure that can reduce many of the physical and psychological symptoms associated with PTSD. The stellate ganglion is a bundle of nerves located in the lower neck and is one of the primary neuronal pathways for the sympathetic nervous system.
A stellate ganglion block is a small injection of local anesthetic into this bundle of nerves, which can calm an otherwise overactive sympathetic nervous system and provide sudden relief from many PTSD or CPTSD symptoms.
While the effects of a stellate ganglion block aren’t permanent, they can provide an immediate boost to your mood and outlook and can help people progress further in therapy.
Ketamine-assisted healing is a technique that combines talk therapy and the use of a dissociative anesthetic, which can help people quickly make breakthroughs in therapy and find lasting relief.
Ketamine has been used as an anesthetic for several decades, but scientists have only just begun to recognize its effects in helping people overcome mental health challenges.
Ketamine provides several benefits for people living with PTSD or CPTSD:
- It can help people detach from the intense emotions around their traumatic experiences
- It can allow people to talk about their experiences and behaviors objectively
- It has powerful antidepressant effects for people with co-occurring mental health challenges
- It can help the brain forge new connections that will last for years to come
While ketamine-assisted healing is a very new form of therapy, the results have proven to be incredible, particularly for people who have tried conventional treatments without success.
Start Treatment for PTSD and CPTSD
The new wave of trauma therapies has given many people who have lost hope for recovery a second chance and provides a compelling case for being used as first-line treatments as well.
- Liriano, Felix et al. “Ketamine as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder: a review.” Drugs in context vol. 8 212305. 8 Apr. 2019, doi:10.7573/dic.212305
- Petrosino, Nicholas J et al. “Transcranial magnetic stimulation for post-traumatic stress disorder.” Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology vol. 11 20451253211049921. 28 Oct. 2021, doi:10.1177/20451253211049921