Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), sometimes referred to as "complex trauma," is often mistaken as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the two conditions differ in critical ways.

Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs in some people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as a terrorist act, rape or robbery; been threatened with violence or death; or witnessed such events closely. The disorder mostly correlates to a single incident.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, on the other hand, develops as a result of prolonged or repetitive exposure to a series of traumatic events over time. The term CPTSD is used interchangeably with complex relational trauma, interpersonal trauma and developmental trauma.

Complex PTSD can contain all the core symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—such as reliving the trauma, feelings of being unsafe and threat avoidance—but these terms are not interchangeable.

Recognizing the trauma

The distinction is important when trying to recognize and treat CPTSD.

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