Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) VS Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): What’s The Difference?

Experiencing trauma, whether a singular traumatic event or prolonged exposure to trauma, can have a major impact on the brain. Most people who live through a traumatic event, such as a car crash, will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS).

It is important to note that PTS is a normal bodily response to a traumatic event and is not considered a disorder. It’s only when PTS symptoms persist for more than one month that they become a cause for concern.

The body responds to stress through a series of changes known as the fight or flight response¹. When the brain detects a major threat, it sends signals that lead to reactions in the body, such as more rapid breathing, an increased heart rate, and tensing of muscles. The body will also prioritize sending blood and oxygen to muscles and the heart while shutting down “non-essential” systems like digestion.

This response is normal during a traumatic event, and symptoms can persist for some time after the event. People may experience shaky hands, shortness of breath, racing hearts, and feelings of fear and nervousness. This is normal. 

It is also common to develop a fear of the type of situation that caused the trauma. For example, getting into a car again may be difficult for people who have recently survived a car crash. It is also common for people to dream about their recent traumatic experiences.

Though initially very strong, these symptoms will likely subside after a few days to weeks. It may be wise to take it easier over this period if possible, seeking calming activities and avoiding additional stress.

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PTS treatment

Because it is a natural bodily response, PTS is not a serious mental health concern. Usually, symptoms gradually subside after a few days to months, even without any specific treatment.

Talking to a healthcare provider or therapist during this time can be worthwhile. This may help people experiencing PTS learn to accept their traumatic experiences and move forward. This can help reduce symptoms faster and lower the risk of developing longer-term mental health problems.

Although it’s considered a normal response, PTS can affect functioning at work or school and impact relationships. If you are concerned about the severity or duration of PTS symptoms, seek advice from a trusted doctor. 

Some people are tempted to reach for alcohol or other drugs to help alleviate their symptoms. It’s important to remember that this will not make things better.

A therapist can help guide you through a recovery program that will equip you with ways to effectively deal with the symptoms of PTS without falling into destructive habits.

How do I know if I have PTS?

PTS² generally begins during a traumatic event. You may notice muscle tensing, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, and a rapid heartbeat, as the body rushes to send oxygen and blood to muscle tissue.

PTS can persist after the traumatic event, too — you may experience nervousness, shaking, and possibly nightmares about the event. These symptoms are generally strongest in the days after the event but should gradually taper off over a period of about a month.

If you or a loved one experiences any of the above symptoms during or after a traumatic event, it is likely a sign of PTS. If these symptoms persist for over one month, it is important to seek medical advice.

PTS can evolve into post-traumatic stress disorder³ (PTSD), which is a more serious condition that may need to be treated by a mental health professional.

It is important to monitor PTS symptoms for signs that they may be evolving into PTSD.  A month after the traumatic event, if your symptoms have not improved, you should discuss this with a doctor or therapist.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in people who have lived through or witnessed a traumatic event. This can be a natural disaster, serious accident, sexual violence, or a situation involving war or other combat. PTSD can also develop after being threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury.

PTSD has much in common with PTS, so any symptoms of PTS that are not getting better after one month may be cause for concern. These symptoms may include having flashbacks to the traumatic event, trouble sleeping, feeling emotionally numb, avoidance of situations and people that may trigger memories of the trauma, and physical signs like episodes of sweating or heart palpitations.

What should I do if I think I have PTSD?

It is important to seek advice from a certified therapist or mental health professional if PTS symptoms persist for more than one month. A medical professional can help you understand your symptoms and work with you to make a treatment plan.

This way, you can manage symptoms sooner, helping to reduce the impact on your quality of life. PTSD may be a condition you live with long-term, but an early diagnosis and the right treatment can help you get on top of the condition faster.

Other signs that you or a loved one may require professional help include being cautious or nervous in crowds, being reluctant to do activities that you previously enjoyed, and avoiding media (such as movies, TV shows, and news reports) that bring up memories of the trauma.

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek a mental health professional. They will help guide you towards better management of PTSD symptoms and develop a long-term management or treatment plan. 

Treatments

Various medication plans and behavioral/cognitive therapies are available to help people cope with or lessen the impact of PTSD on their lives. 

There are three main goals for PTSD therapy:

  • Improving symptoms

  • Teaching the person how to deal with their condition

  • Restoring the person’s self-esteem

Cognitive behavioral therapy⁴, or CBT, is commonly used for treating PTSD. CBT is designed to alter the thought patterns that are disrupting daily life. The therapist will help you uncover your beliefs about your traumatic experience and guide you to develop new, healthier thought patterns.

Exposure therapy is a type of PTSD therapy involving confronting the trauma under supervision and guidance. The person recalls the traumatic memories and/or enters a scary situation (such as getting into a car) while the therapist helps them to stay as calm as possible.

By confronting their fear in a safe and supportive environment, the person’s nervous system gradually learns not to see the memory of the trauma as a continued threat. Although it may not always be easy, this form of treatment can be helpful for people with PTS and PTSD.

Crisis intervention⁵ is a method designed to help patients find non-destructive coping mechanisms and avoid drug and alcohol abuse.

Treatment for PTS

PTS is not a mental disorder but a natural response to trauma. If you experience symptoms of PTS,  it may be helpful to talk to a therapist after a traumatic or stressful event before PTS develops into PTSD.

A therapist may take a similar approach with people suffering from PTS as with those with PTSD because the symptoms are similar.

The lowdown

PTS and PTSD are related but distinct conditions. PTS, or post-traumatic stress, is a normal response to trauma characterized by nervousness, mental stimulation, flashbacks, and nightmares. Usually, PTS symptoms cease a few days to a month after the traumatic event.

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a long-term mental disorder that develops after a traumatic event and has similar symptoms to PTS. This chronic condition can make people irritable, reserved, mentally stressed, and easily startled.

People with PTSD may seek professional help, such as therapy and/or medications, to help them manage their condition.

Curious about clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Discover which clinical trials you are eligible for

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Have you taken medication for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
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