If you’re not sure whether your symptoms are due to PTSD or something else, it may be worth asking your doctor or therapist about differential diagnoses (conditions with similar symptoms).
Going through a jarring or traumatic event isn’t easy. Afterward, you may find it difficult to put the experience behind you. You might continue to feel unusually anxious long after this difficult or traumatizing situation has passed.
A traumatic experience can sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though not all trauma leads to PTSD. And many other conditions have overlapping symptoms with PTSD, which can make getting an accurate diagnosis more complex.
Having some anxiety or additional worries is natural after something bad happens. But when do your symptoms signal PTSD? And could they be a sign of something other than PTSD?
The condition we know as post-traumatic stress disorder was once used almost exclusively to describe the symptoms of veterans who had experienced combat during war. But in these instances, the condition was referred to as “shell shock.” Today, modern research has helped us understand that PTSD can arise from other trauma, too.
The American Psychological Association notes that PTSD is considered to be an anxiety issue related to a traumatic occurrence.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) definition of trauma
Some symptoms of PTSD can include:
- vivid and unwanted memories of the traumatic event
- staying away from anything related to the event or where it took place
- shame or guilt about what happened
- changes in mood
- anger or rage
- causing harm to oneself
It’s important to note that not everyone who goes through a traumatic event has PTSD. Additionally, you may discover that you have PTSD along with another condition.
A differential diagnosis is when a doctor works out which disorder someone has when several disorders have overlapping symptoms.
Receiving an accurate diagnosis is often an important first step toward finding the treatments, coping methods, and support networks that will help you heal. Talking with a doctor or therapist about your symptoms and experiences will help you find the right diagnosis and treatment plan for you.
It’s important not to attempt your own differential diagnosis at home — only licensed mental health professionals, like counselors, therapists, clinical social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists — can make this assessment.
The following conditions share some similarities with PTSD:
- acute stress disorder
- complex PTSD
- dissociative disorders
- adjustment disorder
- generalized anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
- substance use disorders
We look at some of these conditions in more detail below.
Acute stress disorder
This disorder has some highly similar symptoms to PTSD. The main factor that is considered in a PTSD differential diagnosis in this instance is how long you’ve experienced your symptoms. Generally speaking, PTSD requires symptoms to last for at least
Complex PTSD has similar symptoms to PTSD, but the cause is different. While PTSD is usually linked with a single event, complex PTSD develops after repeated exposure to traumatic events, such as childhood neglect or abuse within a relationship.
Complex PTSD is not listed in the DSM-5, but many therapists recognize and treat its symptoms.
Dissociation is one way the body deals with traumatic experiences. When you experience trauma, you might feel a disconnect between your mind and body. This helps give you some distance from the traumatic event.
While dissociation has a useful function in the moment, people with PTSD may notice that dissociation occurs again later on, and it can interrupt their daily lives. For example, someone with PTSD might feel as though they are detached from reality during a flashback.
A variety of dissociative disorders exist, and they often share some common symptoms. These include:
- dissociative identity disorder
- depersonalization/derealization disorder
- dissociative amnesia
The causes of dissociative disorders are often rooted in past traumas, so they are closely linked with PTSD. There’s also a
Generalized anxiety disorder
One reason that PTSD can be confused with generalized anxiety disorder is the intense anxiety you experience with both conditions. Intrusive thoughts and a tendency to feel angry or on edge are also fairly common with both.
People with generalized anxiety disorder have a history of anxiety across a wide range of circumstances, whereas people with PTSD often experience anxiety in response to a major trauma.
Sometimes, the symptoms of depression and PTSD can look and feel alike. People with depression may feel hopeless, or they may feel intense amounts of shame and guilt. People with PTSD also tend to experience this extreme shame, but it’s primarily focused on the event that occurred.
Someone with panic disorder may experience intense feelings of anxiety. This can be related to a specific object or situation. In these cases, you might avoid that specific thing to prevent a panic attack from occurring. A person who experienced trauma may avoid certain situations as well, so these two conditions can feel quite similar in this way.
Substance use disorder
When a person has a substance use disorder, they may experience a few symptoms in common with PTSD. For instance, substance use disorders could cause high anxiety or feelings of being on edge. They could also bring changes in mood and habits, just like with PTSD.
A differential diagnosis can be helpful in distinguishing between PTSD and something else. However, it is possible that you may have both PTSD and another condition with similar characteristics.
When this happens, it’s referred to as comorbidity.
Substance use disorder is a particularly common comorbidity. The PTSD Alliance reports that more than 7 million people in the United States have PTSD. Of those people, they note that as many as 40% also experience addiction.
Further, researchers estimate that almost
If you’re living with PTSD and substance use disorder or other conditions, don’t lose hope. Many resources exist for people experiencing these conditions.
You may want to begin by seeking help from your primary care physician. They can provide referrals to additional resources where necessary. If you already have a trusted counselor or psychiatrist, they would be a safe and helpful person to reach out to.
It’s important to be honest and open about all of your symptoms when speaking with any mental health professional you work with. This includes symptoms related to PTSD and those that could be related to other conditions, such as panic disorder or depression. Doing so ensures that you will receive the help that you need to start healing.
There are various evidence-based treatments for PTSD, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people challenge the patterns of behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that are causing distress.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). CPT helps people modify and challenge unhelpful trauma-related beliefs.
- Prolonged exposure therapy. This type of CBT teaches people to gradually approach memories, feelings, and places related to the trauma to learn that they aren’t dangerous.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, you’re not alone. Help is available right now:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- Call the Veterans Crisis Line 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255
Not in the U.S.? Find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.
The important thing to remember with PTSD is that there is hope. Millions of other people are also going through PTSD. Many more are also experiencing other conditions as well.
Knowing that you aren’t alone can help give you the courage to reach out and ask for some help. Contact your primary care physician or, if you know of one already, a mental health professional. They will have the training to help you with your PTSD and other conditions. They also can refer you to other professionals who can provide further assistance as needed.
If you’re unsure how to ask someone for help, this guide will assist you in finding the words to begin your path to healing. You might also find that podcasts can be helpful on this journey. While not a substitute for treatment, they may help you feel less alone or more supported on your path to wellness.
Getting help for PTSD is important for healing, and by taking the time to read this article, you’re taking those first steps toward healing.