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April 4, 2024

The Relationship Between PTSD and Anxiety

PTSD, a result of traumatic experiences, manifests through intrusive memories, flashbacks, and hyperarousal, whereas anxiety embodies excessive worry and fear. We explore the symptoms of PTSD & anxiety to understand their mutual reinforcement and how PTSD's diagnostic evolution from an anxiety classification affects its common co-occurrencewith anxiety disorders.

Sofia Noori, MD, MPH
The Relationship Between PTSD and Anxiety

What is PTSD and Anxiety?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety are two distinct mental health conditions that can overlap and have a significant impact on a person's well-being. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that develops following exposure to a traumatic event, such as domestic violence, combat, sexual assault, or an accident. It is characterized by intrusive memories, flashbacks, negative mood and thoughts, and hyperarousal. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a general term used to describe excessive and persistent worrying, fear, and apprehension.

Understanding the Symptoms of PTSD

Individuals with PTSD experience a range of symptoms that can significantly affect their daily lives thatcan be categorized into four main clusters: intrusive thoughts and memories, avoidance behaviors, negative thoughts and mood, and changes in arousal. Intrusive thoughts and memories often manifest as distressing flashbacks or nightmares that cause the person to relive the traumatic event. Avoidance behaviors may include avoiding certain situations, places, or people that remind them of the trauma. Negative thoughts and mood can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness. Changes in arousal and reactivity may cause sleep disturbances, irritability, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response.

Understanding the Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in various ways and can be experienced differently from person to person. Some common symptoms include excessive worrying, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and muscle tension. Individuals with anxiety disorders often have an exaggerated fear response to certain situations or triggers, which can lead to avoidance behaviors. Physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, and trembling may also be present.

The Connection between PTSD and Anxiety

There is a significant overlap between PTSD and anxiety, with many individuals experiencing both conditions simultaneously. Historically, PTSD was actually classified as an anxiety disorder before it was reclassified into a new category, Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders.ย 

Research has shown that approximately 80% of individuals with PTSD also meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. โ€œI also consistently hear from many PTSD patients that they are also developing social anxiety due to the increased fear and anxiety around being in crowded locations or difficulty managing symptoms around other people,โ€ says Nema therapist Chloe Findley, LPC. The high comorbidity between the two disorders suggests that they share similar underlying mechanisms and risk factors. Both PTSD and anxiety can be triggered by traumatic events and involve dysregulation of the body's stress response system.

Overlapping Symptoms of PTSD and Anxiety

The symptoms of PTSD and anxiety often overlap, making it challenging to differentiate between the two conditions. For example, both disorders can cause sleep disturbances, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and hypervigilance. Additionally, individuals with both PTSD and anxiety may experience intrusive thoughts and memories related to the traumatic event, as well as excessive worrying and fear about future events. It is essential to conduct a thorough evaluation by a mental health professional to accurately diagnose and treat these conditions.

Can PTSD Cause Anxiety?

PTSD can lead to the development of anxiety disorders. The intense fear and distress associated with the traumatic event can create a heightened sense of vulnerability and hypervigilance, making individuals more prone to experiencing anxiety symptoms. The constant anticipation of potential danger can cause individuals with PTSD to become overly cautious and avoidant, leading to the development of anxiety disorders over time.

Is PTSD an Anxiety Disorder?

PTSD is not classified as an anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While anxiety is a prominent feature of PTSD, the disorder is considered a separate diagnostic entity. PTSD is characterized by specific symptoms related to the traumatic event, such as intrusive memories, nightmares, and flashbacks. However, it is important to note that individuals with PTSD often experience symptoms of anxiety as well.

Differentiating between PTSD and Anxiety

Distinguishing between PTSD and anxiety can be challenging due to their overlapping symptoms. However, there are some key differences to consider. PTSD is typically triggered by a specific traumatic event and involves symptoms directly related to that event. In contrast, anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry and fear that may not be tied to a specific traumatic experience. Additionally, individuals with PTSD often experience flashbacks and intrusive memories, which are less common in anxiety disorders.

How Can CPT Therapy Help in Treating PTSD?

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is an evidence-based therapy commonly used to treat PTSD. CPT focuses on helping individuals identify and challenge maladaptive thoughts and beliefs related to the traumatic event. By addressing these thoughts, individuals can develop more adaptive ways of thinking and reduce the distress associated with the trauma. CPT also helps individuals process their emotions and develop coping skills to manage anxiety symptoms. This therapy has been shown to be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving overall functioning.

Understanding the connection between PTSD and anxiety is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. Although they are distinct disorders, PTSD and anxiety often coexist and share many symptoms. It is important to seek professional help if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of either disorder, as early intervention can lead to better outcomes. With the right support and treatment, individuals can learn to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

If you're facing challenges with PTSD or anxiety, rest assured that help is available. At Nema, our specialists are proficient in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and other supportive therapies tailored for effective treatment of PTSD and anxiety, aiming for lasting recovery. If you're interested in learning more, we invite you to reach out to our compassionate team. Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation.