What Are the Different Types of PTSD?

What comes to mind when you think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Maybe the flashbacks soldiers experience after returning from combat? Or perhaps losing a friend or loved one in an accident?

It’s true that PTSD typically results from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events and life-threatening occurrences like these, as well as others such as natural disasters, assaults, and abuse.

Yet, our understanding of trauma has evolved and broadened in recent decades.

We now know that the diagnostic definition of PTSD also includes a related disorder called Complex PTSD, which can result from the accumulation of smaller stresses or traumas, often experienced in childhood, or even a significant emotional trauma.

Additionally, we know that these traumas can cause changes to the brain and behavior, compromising health and well-being for many people.

Let’s take a closer look at PTSD, and what can be done to treat it.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD 2When we experience an actual traumatic event or series of events, the body’s stress response is triggered. Our built-in “fight-or-flight” response releases cortisol and other stress hormones into our brain and body. This causes our heart rate to increase and prepares our muscles either to run away from whatever could hurt us or to freeze.

In normal circumstances, the stress response system turns off after the threat passes.

When we experience a life-threatening situation or trauma, parts of the brain turn off, allowing us to focus on escape/survival. This can result in some of the trauma’s memories getting placed in non-cognitive areas of the brain, such as the sensory system (associated with sights, sounds, and smells), or in the body.

When a person struggles with PTSD, the brain doesn’t process the trauma correctly. The memory of the event isn’t filed in the past; the brain and body experience it in the present.

The body’s stress response remains engaged, and the brain stays on high alert for potential danger, even when no danger exists. With the traumatic memory placed in the sensory system, sights, sounds, and smells can become triggers.

Research shows that the brain’s amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex are affected by trauma. It’s believed that the symptoms of PTSD represent the behavioral manifestation of the stress-induced changes in the brain’s structure and function.

Signs and Types of PTSD

The most common signs of PTSD include:

  • memories/flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • disrupted sleep
  • low mood
  • anxious feelings
  • general irritability
  • hypervigilance
  • jumpiness
  • trouble concentrating
  • intense guilt or shame

PTSD increases the risk of addictive behaviors, risky behaviors, and suicidal thoughts.

While PTSD (including Complex PTSD) is a broad diagnosis, there are several types of PTSD that professionals use to help diagnose and treat sufferers. Here are the types of PTSD:

Acute Stress DisorderFeelings of anxiousness and avoidance may develop within a month after a traumatic event, but it isn’t PTSD yet.

Dissociative PTSDWhen an individual detaches from the trauma, feeling very separate from the event or “outside” of his/her own body.

Uncomplicated PTSDWhen an individual re-experiences the traumatic event and avoids people and places related to the trauma, but it isn’t associated with other mental health issues.

Comorbid PTSDWhen an individual shows signs of PTSD plus an additional mental health issue like low mood, feelings of anxiousness/panic, or addiction.

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD typically results from prolonged or chronic trauma (frequently experienced in childhood), such as ongoing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are highly associated with Complex PTSD. When there are more ACEs, the greater the chances of developing PTSD. ACEs broaden the causes of PTSD, which also may include:

  • parental separation or divorce
  • untimely death or suicide of a friend or family member
  • active substance abuse in the family
  • mental health disorders in a family (especially untreated ones)
  • neglect
  • poverty
  • instability or lack of adequate shelter
  • incarcerated family members

Some emotional traumas can lead to Complex PTSD as well, such as verbal or emotional abuse, or prolonged neglect. Emotional trauma is any kind of overwhelming experience or series of highly distressing events that exceed an individual’s ability to process the emotions involved and cope satisfactorily. This often happens in childhood but can happen in adulthood too.

These nonviolent causes of trauma and PTSD produce additional signs such as dysregulation, aggressive behavior towards self and others, forgetfulness and dissociation, somatization, distrust, shame, and self-hatred.

There also may be issues with low self-esteem, where the sufferer feels somehow to blame for their trauma (especially when the trauma involves childhood caregivers). They may also experience emotional dysfunction and relationship problems, often staying in unhealthy relationships because it feels normal.

Treatment for PTSD

The good news is that PTSD and Complex PTSD can be treated. Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy can help reduce the symptoms of PTSD, as well as reverse the underlying neurobiology in the brain.

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is another treatment that’s been effective for many people with PTSD. Also, there are lifestyle measures you can take, such as practicing yoga, eating a brain healthy diet, exercising regularly, reducing alcohol consumption, and practicing mindfulness meditation.

If you recognize the signs of PTSD in yourself or a loved one, reach out to a trauma-informed mental health professional for help.

Recovery from PTSD may take time and a concerted effort, but it is possible!

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Kim Henderson
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