Types Of Stress Responses: Treating PTSD And Other Stress Disorders

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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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. Not everyone experiences stress and trauma the same; even months after a traumatic event happened, a person may experience delayed-onset PTSD. 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.

Not all trauma is the same

Types of post-traumatic stress disorders and clinical stress responses

After experiencing trauma 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 developed 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, and how one may develop PTSD.

1.  Normal stress response

As the name suggests, the normal stress response is a set of natural psychological, behavioral, and physical 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 you’re experiencing some of these same symptoms and they do not resolve within one month, an official PTSD diagnosis may be made. 


3.  Uncomplicated post-traumatic stress disorder

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, serious injury, natural disaster, or being diagnosed with a life-altering illness. It’s also the type of disorder that’s commonly seen in emergency response workers like EMTs and military service members. 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. Symptoms of PTSD examined by mental health professionals 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 post-traumatic stress disorder

Comorbid or “co-occurring” disorders means that a person has multiple mental disorders at the same time. If someone has co-morbid PTSD, it means they have both PTSD or C-PTSD in addition to another mental illness. Disorders that are commonly comorbid with PTSD include depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and substance use disorders (formerly called substance abuse). The other disorders a person may have in addition to PTSD may impact the type of treatment their mental healthcare provider suggests.

Recently, another PTSD subtype was added and outlined in the DSM-5. Known as dissociative PTSD, its symptoms can involve depersonalization of self, derealization of reality, and a feeling of disconnect with oneself and one’s environment (known as dissociation). This dissociative subtype of PTSD is typically experienced by those who have had, per the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “repeated traumatization and early adverse experiences” and who have comorbid psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, etcetera. As many as 15 to 30% of individuals with PTSD report symptoms and experiences that are in line with dissociative PTSD, a statistic that may be higher among war veterans. 

Treating post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress disorders

The type of traumatic experience(s) and the resulting symptoms can vary widely from person to person, so treatment for stress disorders and PTSD must be individualized.

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.

Not all trauma is the same

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 reduce symptoms, 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.


The effects of mental disorders like PTSD can have significant negative impacts on a person’s daily life, functioning, and overall well-being. Those who are experiencing symptoms of any of the disorders discussed here can feel empowered to seek treatment, which research shows can be highly effective.

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