HomeBlogConditionsPTSD Acute vs. Chronic: What’s the Difference and Why It Matters

PTSD Acute vs. Chronic: What’s the Difference and Why It Matters

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If you have experienced a traumatic event, you might struggle with PTSD. It’s important to understand the differences between acute and chronic PTSD. Acute PTSD is something that you can work through on your own and doesn’t require ongoing treatment, but chronic PTSD has to be managed with early intervention and treatment to improve your outcome.

Understanding PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, has had many names throughout the decades, like soldiers’ hearts, irritable hearts, or shell shock. PTSD refers to the cognitive impact that comes after experiencing a traumatic event.
Individuals can develop acute or chronic PTSD because of something they saw, something that happened to them, something they were involved in, or something that happened to a loved one. Some examples of causes include:

  1. Abuse
  2. Violence
  3. Assault
  4. Car accidents
  5. Natural disasters
  6. Injuries
  7. Illnesses

Any level of PTSD should be monitored, and if symptoms progress and you start to transition from acute to chronic symptoms, you should consider professional treatment.

young woman with ptsd

Can acute PTSD become chronic?

Yes, without proper treatment or understanding of trauma, someone struggling with acute PTSD can transition into a case of chronic PTSD. Starting treatment early can prevent acute PTSD from becoming chronic PTSD.

Acute vs. chronic PTSD

What is the difference between acute and chronic PTSD? The biggest difference between acute and chronic PTSD is the timeline, but beyond that, there are many similarities.

Acute and chronic PTSD signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms are often similar for acute and chronic PTSD. For example:

  • Individuals with acute and chronic PTSD are likely to experience trouble sleeping, including insomnia and hypersomnia.
  • With PTSD, acute vs. chronic triggers might include the severity of nightmares.
  • Both acute and chronic PTSD can manifest with flashbacks where things trigger you into believing that you are back in whatever location or event led to your initial trauma.

Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, disturbing thoughts, fear and anxiety, heightened stress, higher adrenaline levels even when you are resting, and engaging in restless behavior.

PTSD acute vs. chronic triggers

Acute PTSD and chronic PTSD triggers are highly individualized.
For example:

  • Someone who was involved in a car accident where they were severely injured might be triggered by getting in the car, driving, seeing a car of the same color that hit them, or being in the area where the accident happened.
  • Someone who witnessed an act of violence might be triggered by a sound that reminds them of a gunshot, like fireworks or ice machines, yelling, or even crowds.

For someone with acute vs. chronic PTSD, the triggers might remain the same, but in cases where individuals struggle with chronic PTSD, the triggers get worse over time and might even multiply.

What’s similar between acute and chronic PTSD?

As mentioned, there are several similarities between acute and chronic PTSD. Studies indicate that 1/3 of individuals will struggle with PTSD at one point in their lives, but not all cases of acute PTSD lead to chronic PTSD.

For example, veterans who return home from deployment might be evaluated for signs of PTSD. During that evaluation, they can be told that it’s perfectly normal to come home from a deployment and display symptoms of acute PTSD.

Maybe they have trouble sleeping or being in crowds; perhaps certain sounds trigger them.

Showing symptoms of acute PTSD after something traumatic, like serving a deployment in a war zone, is a distressing and uncomfortable situation that will cause acute symptoms in emotionally healthy human beings.

The problem occurs when those same symptoms persist for months or years and sometimes worsen, possibly even interfering with daily function.

man with ptsd

What is the difference between acute and chronic PTSD?

If you or someone close to you experience trauma, how do you know if you are experiencing PTSD or whether it is acute PTSD or chronic PTSD?

Timeframe and Duration of Symptoms

As mentioned, the biggest delineator between PTSD acute vs. chronic is the time frame. It’s perfectly normal to experience symptoms like trouble sleeping, problems concentrating, or nightmares after a traumatic event, but that should go away with time.

If your symptoms don’t get better with time and last for several months or even years after the traumatic event, it might be time to consider professional treatment.

Severity and Intensity of Symptoms

With chronic PTSD, symptoms are more likely to worsen with time, and you might go from having one or two symptoms to having several symptoms. The intensity of your symptoms usually gets worse with chronic situations.

While someone struggling with acute PTSD might have a nightmare that they reflect on in the morning and lead to tossing and turning, someone with chronic PTSD might have a nightmare so severe that they wake up crying and screaming and are unable to go back to bed.

Impact on Daily Functioning and Quality of Life

Tangentially, with chronic PTSD, symptoms are so severe that they can impede daily function and make it difficult to achieve a good quality of life. Symptoms might be so severe that individuals find it difficult to sleep, hold down a job, drive themselves to and from the grocery store, or even be around other people.

ptsd psychotherapy session

Treatment Approaches for Acute vs. Chronic PTSD

Treatment approaches are slightly different. As mentioned, acute PTSD is natural. You are, of course, welcome to seek professional treatment, which will likely include therapy such as EMDR or CBT, as well as holistic care to help you manage symptoms of stress or anxiety.

Chronic PTSD requires longer treatment that may involve medication in addition to things like EMDR and other psychotherapy. The longer you go without treatment, the more likely your needs will amplify, requiring several months or years of treatment as opposed to a few weeks or a couple of months.

Summing Up

If you or someone close to you has struggled with a traumatic event and might be experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it’s important to develop coping strategies to prevent your acute PTSD from becoming chronic PTSD. Without seeking early intervention, symptoms can worsen, leading to interference in daily function and the need for lengthier treatment.

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