Differential Diagnosis of PTSD Symptoms


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental illness that impacts not only veterans and soldiers, but also many people who suffer from or witness abuse or violence writes Guest Blogger Harold Cohen PhD.

While the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may seem similar to those of other disorders, there are some significant and important differences. For example, PTSD symptoms may seem similar to those of anxiety disorders, such as acute stress disorder, a phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. But in general, in anxiety disorders, there usually isn’t a specific triggering traumatic event for the anxious feelings or worry. Or, in the case of something like phobias, it’s a trigger that most people don’t experience as anxiety-provoking.

In general, the symptoms of acute stress disorder must occur within one month of a traumatic event and come to an end within that one month time period. If symptoms last longer than one month and follow other patterns common to PTSD, a person’s diagnosis may change from acute stress disorder to PTSD.

While both PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have recurrent, intrusive thoughts as a symptom, the types of thoughts are one way to distinguish these disorders. Thoughts present in obsessive-compulsive disorder do not usually relate to a past traumatic event. With PTSD, the thoughts are invariably connected to experiencing or witnessing a past traumatic event.

PTSD symptoms can also seem similar to an adjustment disorder because both are linked with anxiety that develops after exposure to a stressor. With PTSD, this stressor is a traumatic event. With adjustment disorder, the stressor does not have to be severe or outside the “normal” human experience.

PTSD typically lacks the arousal and dissociative symptoms of panic disorder. PTSD differs from generalized anxiety disorder in that the avoidance, irritability, and anxiety is directly associated with a traumatic event (it is not in generalized anxiety disorder).

While a person suffering from PTSD may also suffer from depression, typically the symptoms of PTSD precede the depressive episode (and may help explain such depressive feelings in a person with posttraumatic stress disorder).

In short, posttraumatic stress disorder can be distinguished by a person’s exposure to an actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence, with recurrent intrusive symptoms that are directly associated with the traumatic event. The person persistently avoids stimuli associated with the traumatic event after it occurred, and as a result of the trauma, experiences significant alterations in their thinking and mood.

PTSD is a serious concern that can be successfully treated with psychotherapy. A proper and accurate diagnosis is an important first step in getting care for this condition.


  1. This is a great post. Very informative. Thank you for sharing it. I just wanted to add that there is a PTSD subgroup that does have dissociative symptoms of depersonalization and derealization. This was an excellent host, very thorough and I learned a lot. I want to learn more about PTSD. Thanks for sharing. Hugs, Sue

    • Thanks for commenting Sue. I really appreciate it and for the additional information on the subgroup. I will look into it. All the best Erin

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