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Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis that applies to some but not all individuals who have experienced trauma. A diagnosis of PTSD can be made by a licensed and sufficiently qualified medical or mental health professional on the basis of observed signs and reported symptoms. The diagnostic description for PTSD, located in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, provides criteria for defining a traumatic event and identifies and categorizes various effects that can result from and persist after exposure to a traumatic event.

PTSD can be diagnosed when a person who has been exposed to this definition of a traumatic event appears to exhibit or endorses experiencing a certain number of effects within each category to a particular degree of impact for a sustained period of time. If not enough time has yet passed for the duration requirement (at least one month) to be met, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder could be given instead. When trauma is clinically relevant but the full set of criteria for either of these disorders is not met, unspecified trauma-and-stressor-related disorder can be an applicable diagnosis.

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The general aims of developing and using diagnoses for health-related conditions, including those pertaining to trauma, are to generate a common understanding of the condition, guide treatment, facilitate research, and for insurance billing purposes. As such, the presence or absence of any of these formal diagnoses does not neatly delineate the severity or validity of the source or aftermath of the trauma a person has experienced. In other words, not having a diagnosis doesn’t make your struggle any easier or less real, and having a diagnosis doesn’t mean you are worse off or further from healing.

Some people appreciate receiving a diagnosis because it can provide a sense of coherence and commonality (e.g., “Oh, it’s not just me!”). Others don’t like the idea of being diagnosed because it can feel pathologizing, stigmatizing, or confining (e.g., “This doesn’t define me.) There is truth to each of these viewpoints, and neither is inferior. It’s possible to possess an ambivalent mix of these attitudes. There’s plenty of ambivalence within the mental health profession and the trauma field in particular when it comes to the topic of diagnosis. As our knowledge and understanding of trauma has evolved, a call has emerged to update the formal framework used to diagnose it. Among the cohort of experts and practitioners seeking this adjustment, many argue that the current definition of a traumatic event used to diagnose PTSD is too narrow in focusing on specific traumatic incidents without adequately acknowledging the fact that many people develop trauma as a result of being stuck in prolonged traumatic circumstances or settings within which the continuous threat of experiencing a traumatic incident at any given moment is in itself traumatic.

To create room for this sort of trauma in the diagnostic realm, a classification of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) has been proposed. While this idea has gained recognition and support within the trauma treatment community, has become a popular topic on social media and elsewhere online, and is being considered for addition to future editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is not included in the manual’s current version. However, the World Health Organization added C-PTSD to the latest revision of their International Classification of Diseases (the ICD-11), which seems to be an important step toward C-PTSD gaining the status and applicability of a formal diagnosis.

Regardless of your stance on diagnostic labels or which diagnosis (including none of the above) might best fit your experiences, trauma treatment can help, and you are welcome to reach out by calling or texting (240) 274-5680 or emailing

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