Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can develop in those who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event(s). There are different classifications that vary based on the type of event or events and the reactions a person has to them, including stress disorders that may or may not escalate into clinical PTSD over time. Understanding these different types can help you recognize when it may be time to seek treatment if you believe you might be experiencing symptoms of any of them.
5 Types Of Clinical Stress Responses
After experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, a person may have any number of psychological reactions. A normal stress response is the most common and least severe. Acute stress disorder entails more intense symptoms, but over the short term. If left untreated, either of these can escalate into clinical PTSD—which could be classified as uncomplicated or complex, depending on the type of event(s) experienced. If the individual already had or develops another mental illness in addition, this is known as comorbid PTSD. Let’s take a closer look at each of these five types of clinical stress responses.
1. Normal Stress Response
As the name suggests, the normal stress response is a set of natural physical, psychological, and behavioral reactions that allow a person to deal with a stressor at hand. An individual may experience this response when facing an event such as a major illness or surgery, a high amount of pressure, or an accident. It has the potential to escalate into acute stress disorder and/or eventually full-blown PTSD if not appropriately managed.
2. Acute Stress Disorder
This disorder is one that can also develop into clinical PTSD if left untreated. It may affect people who experienced a life-threatening event. If symptoms do not resolve within one month, an official PTSD diagnosis may be made.
3. Uncomplicated PTSD
Uncomplicated PTSD affects approximately 3.4% of US adults, according to an article published by the National Library of Medicine. It’s a clinical condition that’s typically linked to a single traumatizing event or trauma that occurs within a brief period, such as a car accident or being diagnosed with a serious illness. It’s also the type of disorder that’s commonly seen in emergency response workers like EMTs and the military. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, persistent negative mood and beliefs, irritability, and self-destructive behaviors, among others.
4. Complex PTSD
Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD, is typically caused by ongoing trauma, such as living in a violent community or war zone or experiencing recurrent abuse. The National Library of Medicine reports that 3.8% of US adults have C-PTSD. Key symptoms include difficulty managing emotions, low levels of self-esteem, being extremely hypervigilant and easily startled, intrusive thoughts, persistent feelings of guilt, shame, and a generally negative outlook on the self, others, and the world.
5. Comorbid PTSD
Comorbid or “co-occurring” PTSD means that a person has PTSD or C-PTSD in addition to another mental illness. Disorders that are commonly comorbid with PTSD include depression, anxiety, panic disorders, and substance use disorders. The other disorders a person may have in addition to PTSD may impact the type of treatment their mental healthcare provider suggests.
Treating Stress Disorders And PTSD
This point is especially true if a person has comorbid disorders, and how severe they are if so. That said, treatment for all of the above usually involves some form of psychotherapy, which may or may not be recommended in conjunction with medication.
Trauma-focused treatment that falls under the umbrella of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used for those experiencing PTSD—especially a specific type called cognitive processing therapy (CPT). CBT in general is considered to be “the gold standard of psychotherapy” for treating a variety of conditions because the idea behind it is to help clients identify and shift flawed or unhelpful thought patterns. In the case of PTSD, this approach can help an individual recognize the root fears that are causing the thoughts and behaviors that may be disrupting their lives and alter them in a healthy way. Exposure therapy, where the therapist guides the client in safely facing the source of their fears, may also be used in some cases.
Seeking Help For PTSD Symptoms
Symptoms of stress disorders and PTSD can be distressing at best and debilitating and dangerous at worst. That’s why it’s so important to seek treatment if you feel you may have one of the disorders discussed here. While seeking support like talk therapy for a condition like this can seem intimidating, the results can be worthwhile: According to one paper on the topic, as many as 95% of patients lost their PTSD diagnosis after completing therapeutic treatment. In other words, a trained therapist with experience in these conditions can help you heal from your trauma and put its effects behind you.
Whether you’re having difficulty locating an experienced provider in your area or you simply prefer to receive treatment from the comfort of your own home, online therapy is one option for those with stress disorders, PTSD, or comorbid disorders like depression and anxiety. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, for instance, you can fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and get matched with a licensed therapist in a matter of days. You can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. One study found that online CBT "reduced PTSD severity and other psychopathological symptoms” in participants, meaning this format is one choice to consider when weighing your options for getting treatment for stress disorders.
What are the different ways that individuals cope with and manage the impact of trauma?
Five ways that people cope and manage the impact of trauma or multiple traumatic events are a normal stress response, acute stress disorder, uncomplicated PTSD, complex PTSD, and comorbid PTSD.
A normal stress response to one major traumatic event is the least severe and most common. Acute stress disorder has more intense symptoms, but they only last for a short period. If left untreated, acute stress can progress to PTSD, which can be uncomplicated or complex according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, depending on the event causing the stress. When people with PTSD have or develop another mental illness, this is known as comorbid PTSD. Another type of PTSD, dissociative PTSD, is a type in which people experience all of the symptoms of PTSD as well as depersonalization, which is the detachment from the self, and derealization, detachment from the environment.
What are the bad ways of coping with trauma?
When people are dealing with trauma, they may use negative coping mechanisms that cause more harm than good. Substance use is one example. People may use drugs or alcohol to help themselves sleep or to try to escape their problems or make their symptoms go away, but regularly using substances can lead to many other issues. Other examples of negative coping mechanisms include avoiding others or self-isolating, working too much, always being on guard, avoiding any reminders of trauma, or engaging in violent, angry, or dangerous behavior.
Can a person with PTSD live a normal life?
Yes; research shows that 20%, 27%, and 50% of cases recovered within 3, 6, and 24 months, respectively. This research also found that 77% recovered within ten years. According to the American Psychological Association, if PTSD symptoms last longer than a year, they probably won’t resolve on their own. Treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can help people with PTSD address and relieve their symptoms so that they can maintain positive relationships and improve their quality of life.
What are three unhealthy coping skills for PTSD?
Three unhealthy coping skills for PTSD are substance use, avoiding other people, and dangerous behavior. People with PTSD may turn to alcohol or drugs to help them sleep, deal with symptoms, or escape their problems, but these substances can have serious detrimental effects on their relationships, job, and health.
Avoiding others may be tempting for people with PTSD because it allows them to avoid situations that they may find stressful, but it can make you feel isolated. When you distance yourself from other people, it can make things feel worse than they are. You may have more negative thoughts or feelings and feel worse about things because you’re facing them alone. You don’t need to have a big group of friends, but having the right social support can help you cope. It gives you somewhere to turn to for guidance or advice and can help you feel like you’re not alone.
Dangerous behavior can vary. Some people may feel a lot of anger, which can cause them to do reckless things or distance themselves from people who might want to help them. Others might act out violently or do things that are dangerous or risky, like speeding, starting fights, gambling, self-harming, or binging and purging food.
How does trauma affect behavior?
Trauma reactions vary widely. Some people try to reduce stress through self-medication, compulsive behaviors, or impulsive behaviors. Some people may act like they can’t control their current environment as a result of feeling out of control during the traumatic event, which can lead to an inability to make decisions or take action. People who have experienced trauma may engage in self-harm, with cutting and burning being the two most common forms.
Another behavior that may be common after trauma is avoidance. Avoidance may help to reduce stress at first, but over time, it can increase anxiety and may hinder healing. Learning to manage triggers and emotions can be key to recovery; avoidance behavior can hinder this progress.
What happens when PTSD is triggered?
A trigger is something that “triggers” a memory of the traumatic event. People with all types of post traumatic stress may react to triggers in various ways, and they may be more likely to be affected by new potentially traumatic events. How people with PTSD respond to triggers varies. They may get angry more quickly, drink more heavily, or sleep poorly or avoid social situations. Some may be guarded or overly protective, or they may become preoccupied with danger and feel that they need to prepare for what may happen in the future.
How do you deal with post-traumatic stress triggers?
There are a variety of things you can try to deal with PTSD triggers. Keep up with your daily routine as much as possible, and limit repeated exposure to the news. Try to maintain a good diet and exercise routine, and make sleep a priority. Allow yourself to feel what you feel, and give yourself time and space to deal with what has happened. Try to stay calm. Talking to someone close to you who understands what you’re going through can help. If you don’t feel comfortable talking, writing in a journal can help you deal with intense emotions.
If you try strategies like these and feel that you are not improving, if you are abusing alcohol or drugs, if you are experiencing problems in your relationship or at work, of if you are experiencing high levels of distress, talk to a mental health care professional or your doctor for more support and to learn how to manage your mental health concern and treat PTSD.
What happens if you don't cure PTSD?
If you don’t treat this mental health condition, symptoms may continue to get worse, and could develop into complex PTSD, or you may develop other mental health conditions, like anxiety disorders or dissociative disorders. Treatment can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, but it may not always cure the condition completely. One of the most useful parts of treatment for PTSD may be learning how to cope with triggers and manage your stress and emotions.
How does PTSD affect activities of daily living?
Like other mental disorders, PTSD can affect someone’s ability to care for themselves. For example, someone with PTSD may not care for their appearance or hygiene. Initially, this may start as not combing their hair or bruising their teeth everyday and eventually progress to not shaving, showering, or wearing clean clothes. They may not keep up with housework and become overwhelmed by simple tasks, like doing the dishes or sweeping the floors.
What should you avoid with PTSD?
People with all types of PTSD should try to avoid negative coping mechanisms, like turning to alcohol or drugs to sleep or cope with other symptoms, self-isolating, or engaging in violent or dangerous behavior. That said, coping with the symptoms of PTSD can be extremely challenging. For people with this condition who have turned to negative coping mechanisms, talking to a mental health professional in individual and group therapy can help them learn how to deal with their symptoms in a more productive way.
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