Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs after a traumatic event. It can lead to several consequences in your life, and it may even lead to other mental health disorders. PTSD and depression, which share many similarities, may even occur at the same time. However, key differences between the two make them distinct from one another. Trauma can have far-reaching effects on your mental health, and it can be a contributing factor in more than one mental health disorder. However, while trauma is one potential factor in depression, it’s at the root of post-traumatic stress.
How can you tell the difference between PTSD and depression? How is PTSD diagnosed? You can learn more about the causes and relationship between depression and PTSD below.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder was once classified as an anxiety disorder because it often causes anxious thoughts and other symptoms consistent with anxiety. However, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) moved PTSD to the new category of trauma and stressor-related disorders.
PTSD involves mood swings, anxious thoughts, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors, and flashbacks to the traumatic event. The highest rate of PTSD is among military service members who see active combat situations. However, a wide variety of potentially traumatic events could lead to PTSD. Civilians may encounter traumatic events in car accidents, assaults, or natural disasters. PTSD may also be triggered by trauma that isn’t experienced directly. For instance, you may witness or hear about a traumatic event that affects a loved one and experience PTSD.
Many people experience traumatic events at some point during their lifetime, but not everyone that goes through trauma will develop PTSD. It’s unknown why some people experience trauma without developing PTSD and others cannot. In some cases, two people can experience the same event while only one develops PTSD. In many cases, people who would be considered physically and mentally tough, well-prepared, or trained develop PTSD.
PTSD is a complex mental health issue that can lower your quality of life and lead to other complications. The disorder can worsen your sleep quality and bring on avoidance behaviors that can hinder your quality of life and functioning. However, PTSD can be treated with several therapy options depending on your specific needs.
How Are PTSD and Depression Related?
After anxiety disorders, depression is one of the most common mental health problems in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 21 million people in the United States have had at least one major depressive episode, which accounts for 8.4% of the population. It’s common for PTSD to come with other comorbid mental health problems. An estimated 80% of people with PTSD have other mental health issues, including anxiety or depression.
PTSD and depression often occur at the same time, but there are several symptoms of both disorders that overlap with each other. Common symptoms that can occur with PTSD and depression include the following:
- Sleep problems. Sleep problems can happen with several mental health problems. Depression can cause you to sleep long hours or not enough. PTSD is more likely to cause insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep. You may experience racing thoughts or anxiety that makes it hard to rest and relax.
- Loss of interest. The loss of interest in most activities is a hallmark of depression, but it can happen with PTSD as well. Loss of interest in work, responsibilities, and leisure activities is a sign of both mental health issues.
- Irritability. Irritability is another common symptom of mental health issues. PTSD can make you short-tempered, easily annoyed, or prone to outbursts. Depression can also cause irritability, especially if you feel tired and unmotivated.
- Emotional detachment. Depression and PTSD can make it challenging to connect with other people emotionally or manage life’s responsibilities. These disorders may strain your relationships or cause social isolation, which can worsen your mental health.
- Lower quality of life. Depression and PTSD can cause lower quality of life in general. As anxious or depressive thoughts dominate your thoughts, you may find it hard to concentrate or enjoy the things around you.
While PTSD and depression share similar symptoms and often occur together, they are different mental health problems, and treatment for them is unique.
What Is the Difference Between Depression and PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a unique mental health issue. In fact, researchers found it to be so unique that it was placed in its own category in the DSM-5. The major difference between PTSD and other mental health problems like depression is that it’s tied to past trauma. Trauma is always the root of PTSD symptoms, and it’s an important factor in effective treatment.
Trauma can lead to other mental health problems, including depression, but depression isn’t always directly linked to past trauma. Depression may be caused by several factors, including genetic, environmental, and developmental factors. PTSD also has several unique features, including flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts.
Flashbacks are the common name for dissociative episodes that PTSD causes. The disorder can cause episodes of dissociation when you re-experience the traumatic event that caused your PTSD. You may feel or act as if the trauma is happening again. These episodes can occur on a continuum of severity. You may have a brief moment where you experience the emotions and thoughts that the traumatic event caused. The most severe flashbacks can cause a complete loss of awareness of your surroundings.
Nightmares are another common symptom of PTSD. You may dream of the traumatic event, or you may have frequent nightmares that are in some way related to the event. These nightmares can contribute to sleep disturbances and insomnia that lower your sleep quality. You may also be afraid to go to sleep. If you dread the idea of going to sleep each night for fear of reliving a past traumatic event, you may have PTSD.
People with PTSD often have trouble controlling their thoughts and may experience frequent intrusive thoughts related to past trauma. Intrusive thoughts may involve disturbing actions or images that you didn’t actively bring to mind. Sudden disturbing thoughts can lower your mood or hinder your enjoyment or focus on your current surroundings. In some cases, that may trigger more severe symptoms like flashbacks.
PTSD can cause prolonged distress after a person is exposed to triggers that remind them of past trauma. Triggers can be internal or external, which means emotion or thought could remind you of past trauma, or reminders can come from people, places, or circumstances in your day-to-day life. Depression can come and go randomly, depending on the type of mood disorder you have. However, PTSD distress can happen suddenly with triggers, even if you feel normal in the days or weeks leading up to a trigger.
Avoidance behavior is another unique PTSD symptom, although it can also occur with panic disorders. Avoidance refers to an apprehension to return to places, circumstances, or people where a triggering episode occurred. If you have a flashback or intrusive thought at the grocery store, you may avoid that particular store or even grocery stores in general. As avoidance scenarios build up, they can start to significantly impair your life.
How Do I Know If I Have Depression or PTSD?
Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step in treating PTSD or depression effectively. Since mental health problems can have overlapping symptoms, it’s important to find the right diagnosis that explains your symptoms. Getting an accurate diagnosis may begin by speaking to a professional about your symptoms. You may speak to your doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist to get started. If you enter a treatment program, you will go through an assessment process with a professional.
Your doctor or therapist will likely use the DSM as a guide when diagnosing your mental health. You may also go through a biopsychosocial, which is an in-depth questionnaire that explores any potential biological, psychological, or social needs you may have.
When you’re seeking a diagnosis, it’s important to do a psychological evaluation, but that’s not all. It’s often wise to go through a medical check-up as well. This may involve a physical exam with blood work. In some cases, medical problems like head injuries, malnutrition, tumors, vitamin deficiencies, and other factors can impact your mental health. Sometimes, mental health problems can cause medical complications that also need to be addressed.
Getting a diagnosis may require a trial and error process with your doctor. If you begin treatment for a disorder but your evolving symptoms reveal that your initial diagnosis may have been inaccurate, let your doctor know. If you’re struggling to find a diagnosis or effective treatment, don’t give up. It’s common for it to take time to find the best treatment for your needs, but treatment that works is possible.