Post-Traumatic Stress vs. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: What Are the Differences?
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are both mental health conditions that can occur after a dangerous or threatening experience. Despite the similarities in their names, the conditions have a variety of differences.
If you were to experience a scary event like a car accident, physical changes would take place in your body. Adrenaline would be released, your heart would start pumping faster, and processes that aren’t immediately important like digestion, would be shut down so your muscles would receive more blood flow. This is the body’s natural response to perceived danger. It’s called the “flight or fight” response.
Another effect of this response is the release of cortisol into the blood. This stress hormone can cause you to feel shaky, nervous, and on edge. Later, you may think back on the experience and feel anxious, or you might even have nightmares about it. This is Post-Traumatic Stress and not considered a disorder. However, it could become one.
Here’s what Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, said in Health Magazine, “PTS is considered a normal reaction to stress and is not considered a mental illness.” Going back to the car accident scenario, she says, “You may [later] avoid that road and alter your route. You may even feel nervous about driving down a similar road. […] But after a few days, these thoughts subside then eventually fade.”
This is where the difference lies between PTS and PTSD. As symptoms of PTS will naturally ease, those of PTSD will be persistent and disruptive to your everyday life. Common symptoms of PTSD include extreme anxiousness, anger, nightmares, avoidance of friends, family, activities, and places, having flashbacks, and/or constantly thinking about the event. These feelings and behaviors don’t subside after weeks of experiencing them. Someone experiencing PTSD might turn to substances to cope and numb his or her symptoms. This type of coping is extremely dangerous and needs clinical intervention as soon as possible.
An important differentiator of PTSD is that it doesn’t have to occur directly following a traumatic event. The PTSD Alliance, a national advocacy organization, says that while symptoms can certainly appear immediately after an event, they can also show up months or even years later.
PTSD is clinically diagnosed, whereas PTS is not. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have “prolonged disturbing thoughts that interfere with their normal daily lives.” (Dr. Hafeez PsyD, Health Magazine, Oct. 2018) Sounds, smells, places, and activities can trigger a person with PTSD, along with a variety of other environmental factors. They constantly feel jumpy, nervous, and may be startled by small things like a touch or a sneeze. They may get angry easily or cry suddenly. A person with PTSD is rarely able to relax.
As debilitating as PTSD can be, there are therapies that are helpful in diminishing or extinguishing symptoms. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET), as well as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR), have proven to be very successful in helping people suffering from PTSD and are widely used by clinical professionals. Medications like sertraline and paroxetine, both of which are commonly prescribed for anxiety, are also beneficial for treatment.
For many people, several months of focused treatment will dramatically improve symptoms and the quality of their lives. If you or someone you love is suffering from PTSD, please call us today to get help at 1-888-986-7848.