It's easy to write-off excessive worries and racing thoughts as symptoms of anxiety. But if you know you're dealing with anxiety, it's important to be aware of where certain fears are really coming from. Although anxiety is different from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the two mental health conditions can show up in similar ways. So how can you tell the difference between signs of post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety?
"The main similarity between PTSD and anxiety is that the body’s alarm system is somewhat broken," Julia Lawrence, LMSW, psychotherapist at A Good Place Therapy, tells Bustle. "Yet with PTSD, the fear is often specific to a reoccurrence of an event."
For instance, if you find yourself playing an event over and over again in your head, that's a pretty good indicator that you may have PTSD and not just anxiety. "The visceral 're-experiencing' makes PTSD unique and hard to cope with," she says. "But with the right therapist, it's definitely possibly to re-program that broken alarm system."
In order to call what you're experiencing PTSD — whether it's minor or otherwise — there needs to be that element of trauma. As Carole Lieberman M.D., psychotherapist and author, tells Bustle, "PTSD is categorized as an anxiety disorder, but it has many other symptoms besides simple anxiety."
So here are signs you may have minor PTSD, even if you think it's just anxiety, according to experts.
1Call Back Moments Ruin Your Entire Day
If the scent of a stranger's cologne or the sight of a familar shirt makes you anxious, pay attention. As licensed Professional Counselor, Melanie Skipper-Relyea, MHR, tells Bustle, you may not have full-on flashbacks, but if seemingly unrelated experiences seem to trigger a traumatic memory, it's worth keeping note of. "If having that traumatic memory again colors the rest of your day, it may be PTSD," she says. And if you are finding that these moments of recall are particularly debilitating, discussing your symptoms with a therapist can help you to better cope with trauma you may have experienced.
2You Avoid People, Events, Or Places "Just Because"
If you find yourself avoiding certain events, people, or places because you know it makes you stressed and anxious, it's important to figure out why. "You may insist you’ve always been this way," Skipper-Relyea says. "But if you avoid certain people, places or situations due to unpleasant connections from the past, that may not make rational sense to say it's only anxiety."
According to Lawrence, people with anxiety try to avoid one specific trigger that causes them to feel nervous. But avoidance in PTSD shows up a little differently. "You may not only be avoiding anything that reminds you of a specific traumatic event, but also any situation that may lead to feeling any emotions at all," she says. "With standard anxiety the goal is often just to relieve the anxiety symptoms, with PTSD the goal is often to feel numb, or nothing at all." So if you notice you're finding ways to suppress your emotions, whether it be good or bad, seeking help from a loved one or a therapist may be the best way to help you with avoiding circumstances in the future.
3You're Depressed And Feel Hopeless But Don't Know Why
As Lena Derhally MS, Licensed and Imago Certified Psychotherapist, tells Bustle, "Trauma manifests in interesting ways." People who experience trauma can often feel depressed, hopeless, and worthless. So if you know your symptoms are relatively new and you don’t have a history of major depressive disorder, this could point to trauma, she says. Regardless of the cause, though, if you are experiencing these symptoms, you do not have to suffer in silence — discussing these challenges with someone close to you or a professional can help keep these feelings from taking over your life.
4You Experience A 90/10 Reaction
A 90/10 reaction happens when something seemingly insignificant like a passing comment in the present triggers triggers a flood of negative emotions from the past. "We store our trauma in our bodies and it’s very powerful how it can come back to us at the most random times," Derhally says. So if something super small seems to bring out an intense reaction in you, it may be a sign of PTSD, and a therapist may be able to help you better deal with the after effects of trauma that may arise.
5You Can't Sleep Well At Night
As Rob Cole, LMHC, clinical director of mental health services at Banyan Treatment Center tells Bustle, PTSD is a response to trauma that can make individuals feel scared, hopeless, or horrified for at least one month following the trauma. According to Cole, having disturbances in your sleeping pattern due to reoccurring dreams is a sign that you may have minor PTSD and not anxiety. If this becomes a problem for you, a therapist or counselor can help you address the trauma that is keeping you up at night.
6You Can't Envision The Future Of Your Life
Those suffering from PTSD avoid stimuli associated with the trauma by trying not to think, feel or talk about it. As Cole says, "They lose interest in things they once cared about and often remain detached from others. Emotions may appear blunted and the person envisions a short future where they don’t believe they will have a career, marriage, children or a normal lifespan." If you have anxiety, thinking of the future can trigger an attack. But if you just can't picture your future altogether, that's a sign you may have PTSD. If you think you may have the latter, there are methods that can help you — alerting a professional or someone you trust to these feelings is a good place to start.
7You Have Difficulty With Communicating
PTSD is a condition where the symptoms often show up in parts of our lives that feel totally unrelated, Lawrence says. So if you were in a traumatic car accident, you might still find yourself lacking assertiveness with your colleagues or you might have difficulty making small talk with people around you. "Even though the trauma is technically unrelated, it’s normal to feel a profound sense of disconnect with people in general," Lawrence says.
If you think you may have a mild case of PTSD, what should you do? "Ideally if anyone has any type of trauma, the very best thing to do is go to therapy," Derhally says. Seeking professional help is best if your symptoms become intrusive in any way.
However, if therapy is not an option, Derhally says, "A good thing to remember is a saying by trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk: 'You must calm the body before you can calm the brain.' In trauma we say the body keeps the score. So if you can do any calming practice of the body (meditation, yoga, deep breaths, even exercise) and do it on a regular basis that should help some."
Anxiety and PTSD can show up in similar ways, but treatment is different. With PTSD, working with a professional to overcome past traumas can be useful. But as with anything related to mental health, it's important to find the best treatment plan that works for you.