3 Main Trauma Diagnosis - PTS, PTSD & Complex PTSD Explained


Trauma, PTSD and Complex PTSD are words that have been thrown around a lot lately.

Trauma has been a hot topic because in the last 10 years the field of good trauma treatment has undergone a lot of changes. The world of treating trauma has made major gains in best treating trauma and helping individuals recover from traumatic experiences. However, it can be confusing to know which term refers to what, and so I've explained the three main trauma diagnosis below. 


What is trauma?

Simply put, trauma most often refers to an emotional or psychological experience that is deeply distressing. Now since each person has a different reaction to events they experience, so we have separate categories to differentiate between different kinds of trauma diagnosis.

The 3 common trauma diagnosis are:

  1. Post Traumatic Stress (PTS)

  2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  3. Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

An individual may develop post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing one or more traumatic events. For example, sexual or physical abuse, being bullied, a robbery,  a car accident or warfare. Now, you don't necessarily have to be the one who went through the incident, for some, even just witnessing the event can trigger PTSD.

As I mentioned above, no two people experience the same event in the same way, which is why one person can develop PTSD and the other can leave without any symptoms at all. There is very little you can do to prevent yourself from getting PTSD, as it has to do with how your brain and body digest the experience, and it has absolutely nothing to do with how strong or brave you are. Since it can seem confusing, there is often shame and guilt about PTSD and I want you to be gentle on yourself if your body has such symptoms.  

According to research, approximately 70% of adults in the U.S have experienced trauma at least once in their lives, and 20% of those develop PTSD. Within this percentage, there are people whose symptoms naturally dissipate and others who have nagging symptoms for months or even years. However, at any given point in time there are more than 13 Million adults in America struggling with PTSD. Although that is 5% of the population, that number is quiet large when it comes to individuals struggling with painful trauma symptoms.

Now, some people experience a traumatic event but do not develop PTSD, rather they have Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).

What are Post Traumatic Stress symptoms?

  • feeling afraid or nervous

  • increased heart rate

  • avoiding situations that remind of the traumatic incident

  • being distracted

  • having shaky hands

  • having nightmares about the incident

What are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms?

  • nightmares

  • flashbacks of the event or incident

  • numbing or avoiding memories of the event

  • severe anxiety symptoms

  • difficulty sleeping

  • hyper-arousal, over- activated nervous system.

Now these symptoms seem awfully similar to each other, so what are the differences between PTSD and PTS?

PTSD Symptoms:

  1. Last for more than a month

  1. Are intense and severe

  2. Interfere with daily ability to function

PTS symptoms:

  1. Last up to 30 days (usually less than a month)

  2. Reduce in intensity after a few day

  3. Do not interfere with daily living


If you do have PTS and the symptoms don't seem to let up, you may have developed PTSD and then it would be important to reach out to a therapist for help. Some people suffer in silence and procrastinating caring for trauma symptoms often makes them worse and add to the pain.

Complex PTSD- what is that?

Complex PTSD refers to symptoms of those who have experienced interpersonal and/or social trauma. For example, being in a situation where you are left feeling helpless, at a loss of control, having your identity misconstrued or even losing your sense of self. These situations include: sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, domestic violence, physical abuse or torture. You feel trapped and incapable of escaping the situation. This can happen if you were a child being abused by an older siblings or controlled by someone else in a position of power. As well,  you can develop C-PTSD  if you have a lengthy history of being bullied, or did not have your basic needs met and felt utterly helpless and neglected. The more helpless you felt, the stronger your trauma symptoms will be.


You cannot develop C-PTSD from one, single, event. C-PTSD if from being in a traumatizing situation for a long time, rather from experiences that usually last for months and years, and because of that, often impact your personality on a deep level. 

It is common for people with complex PTSD to feel misunderstood, are often misdiagnosed and can feel blamed for some of their intense behaviors. Some behaviors of C-PTSD include: feeling chronically sad, having suicidal thoughts, and having anger outbursts. They may have flashbacks, or may not have flashbacks (memories) of the trauma, but what is often left with them is the impacts its had on their personality.

Meaning, if you have C-PTSD you may feel emotions such as shame, guilt, helpless and worthless. You may have a hard time learning to trust others and struggle with intimacy, which can cause you to socially or emotionally isolate due to the fear you anticipate in relationships (although you may not really want to be alone).

Differences between PTSD and C-PTSD?

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  • Multiple interpersonal traumas.

  • Flashbacks and night terrors

  • Difficulties sleeping and insomnia

  • Difficult regulating emotions ,self soothing & easily overwhelmed.

  • Feeling fragmented, dissociated and disconnected from self and others

  • Relationship avoidance and social isolation

  • Hyper-vigilant (or preoccupied with abuser/perpetrator)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder :

  • One trauma or less.

  • Having anxiety or depression symptoms

  • Experiencing Flashbacks.

  • Having nightmares about the trauma.

  • Avoiding things that remind you of trauma.

  • Being Hyper-vigilant.

  • Having an exaggerated startle reflex.

  • Experiencing dissociation.


All traumas can be treated, including PTSD and Complex Trauma.

The main difference? Treating Complex PTSD may need longer, and may require more therapy sessions and more time in overall treatment. 

The good news is, wherever you may fall on the trauma continuum, healing is available. If something about this article resonates with you, feel free to reach out.

The first step to getting better is finding a therapist who is the right fit for you so that you can begin your trauma recovery.

Good therapy for trauma often includes: Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (talk therapy), Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, Expressive Arts, Somatic Psychotherapies and Parts Work (Ego State or IFS work). In my practice in treating trauma, I use a blend of the above modalities in helping reduce trauma related symptoms. 

If you're ready to do the work to experience relief, reach out today for your free consultation.