PTSD And Complex PTSD – The Difference Between Them

•  Vianey Gonzalez – Psychologist, Certified Deception Professional, Psychology Advisory Panel & Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

Understanding the Scam Victim’s Challenges Navigating the Differences Between PTSD and Complex PTSD

Scam victims face intricate nuances in their trauma, by shedding light on the contrasting impacts of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) we hope to educate victims on their differences. By exploring these differences, victims can gain a deeper understanding of the emotional struggles they may face and how these distinct forms of trauma manifest.

Remember, this is not a replacement for professional counseling or therapy, we only hope to offer valuable insights for those navigating the path to recovery.

What is Complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a psychological condition that can develop in individuals who have experienced prolonged and repetitive traumatic events, including the victims of relationship scams (such as romance scams or pig butchering cryptocurrency investment scams,) often over an extended period. It’s sometimes referred to as “complex” because it typically involves a combination of various traumatic experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, exploitation, or interpersonal violence. Unlike classic PTSD, which usually results from a single traumatic incident, C-PTSD is associated with ongoing and recurring traumas, such as combining the new trauma with past untreated traumas.

C-PTSD is characterized by a range of symptoms and behaviors, which may include:

  • Emotional Dysregulation: People with C-PTSD often struggle to manage their emotions, experiencing intense mood swings, anger, sadness, and anxiety.
  • Disturbances in Self-Identity: Trauma survivors may have a fragmented or unstable sense of self. They might experience feelings of emptiness, worthlessness, or guilt.
  • Problems in Relationships: Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships is common. Survivors may struggle with trust, intimacy, and forming connections.
  • Negative Self-Concept: Individuals with C-PTSD may develop a highly negative self-image, experiencing chronic self-doubt, self-criticism, and feelings of shame.
  • Dissociation: C-PTSD can lead to episodes of dissociation, where individuals may feel disconnected from themselves or their surroundings. This can manifest as depersonalization or derealization.
  • Emotional Flashbacks: Survivors of complex trauma may have emotional flashbacks, which involve re-experiencing intense emotions from past traumas.
  • Hypervigilance and Avoidance: Like classic PTSD, C-PTSD can cause hypervigilance (being constantly on alert for potential threats) and avoidance of situations that trigger traumatic memories.
  • Physical Symptoms: Chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and other physical symptoms may also be part of C-PTSD.

C-PTSD often stems from adverse childhood experiences, such as physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and domestic violence. It can also result from being exposed to chronic, traumatic stressors in adulthood, such as long-term abusive relationships, human trafficking, or captivity.

How is Complex PTSD Similar or Different from regular PTSD?

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) share similarities but also have important differences. Here’s how they differ:

  • Type of Trauma:
    • PTSD: Typically results from exposure to a single, shocking, or life-threatening event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, combat, or sexual assault.
    • C-PTSD: Arises from prolonged and repetitive traumatic experiences, often occurring over months or years. It is more common in cases of chronic interpersonal trauma, such as childhood abuse, domestic violence, or human trafficking.
  • Duration of Trauma:
    • PTSD: Occurs after a single traumatic event.
    • C-PTSD: Arises from chronic and prolonged exposure to traumatic situations.
  • Symptoms:
    • PTSD: Symptoms commonly include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety related to the traumatic event. Hypervigilance and avoidance are also key features.
    • C-PTSD: In addition to symptoms similar to PTSD, C-PTSD often involves disturbances in self-identity, emotional dysregulation, and difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships. It’s characterized by a broader range of symptoms related to long-term interpersonal trauma.
  • Emotional Dysregulation:
    • PTSD: While individuals with PTSD may experience mood disturbances, they are not typically as pervasive or intense as in C-PTSD.
    • C-PTSD: Emotional dysregulation, including intense mood swings, anger, and difficulty managing emotions, is a hallmark feature.
  • Self-Identity:
    • PTSD: Doesn’t necessarily affect one’s sense of self-identity.
    • C-PTSD: Complex trauma often leads to disturbances in self-identity, with individuals experiencing feelings of emptiness, worthlessness, and chronic self-doubt.
  • Relationship Issues:
    • PTSD: While interpersonal issues may result from PTSD, they are not typically the central focus.
    • C-PTSD: Problems in forming and maintaining healthy relationships are common and central to the diagnosis.
  • Flashbacks:
    • PTSD: Flashbacks in PTSD are usually vivid recollections of the traumatic event itself.
    • C-PTSD: In C-PTSD, flashbacks are often emotional in nature, where individuals re-experience intense emotions from past traumas.
  • Duration of Symptoms:
    • PTSD: Symptoms of PTSD can be acute, lasting for several months after the traumatic event, or chronic, lasting for years.
    • C-PTSD: Symptoms are often chronic and enduring, as they result from prolonged exposure to trauma.
  • Treatment Approach:
    • PTSD: Treatment for PTSD typically involves cognitive-behavioral therapies like exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), or medications like antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs.
    • C-PTSD: Due to the broader and more pervasive symptoms, treatment for C-PTSD often involves trauma-focused therapies (e.g., dialectical behavior therapy, schema therapy) that address complex issues around self-identity, relationships, and emotional regulation.

Important Note

It’s important to note that C-PTSD is not recognized as an official diagnosis in all mental health diagnostic systems (e.g., DSM-5). Instead, some professionals use the term to describe a cluster of symptoms commonly seen in individuals who have experienced chronic interpersonal trauma. The key distinction between C-PTSD and PTSD is the nature of the traumatic experiences and the resulting complex, pervasive, and enduring symptoms in the former.

Complex PTSD impacts Victims of Crime differently than normal PTSD

Complex PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) share many symptoms, but they differ in their causes and long-term effects. Here’s how C-PTSD impacts victims of crime differently than normal PTSD:

  • Duration and Complexity of Trauma:
    • PTSD: Typically occurs as a result of a single traumatic event, such as a car accident, combat, or sexual assault.
    • C-PTSD: Arises from prolonged, recurring trauma, often involving interpersonal victimization, such as childhood abuse, domestic violence, or long-term captivity.
  • Symptom Profile:
    • PTSD: Common symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and emotional numbing.
    • C-PTSD: Has a broader range of symptoms, which may include emotional dysregulation, interpersonal difficulties, self-esteem issues, and chronic feelings of emptiness.
  • Self-Concept and Relationships:
    • PTSD: May affect how a person perceives the world but not necessarily how they view themselves.
    • C-PTSD: Often leads to a distorted self-concept, difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, and a sense of betrayal by others.
  • Emotional Regulation:
    • PTSD: May lead to emotional numbness or heightened states of anxiety and arousal.
    • C-PTSD: Often results in difficulty regulating emotions, leading to intense mood swings, anger, and emotional reactivity.
  • Triggers and Flashbacks:
    • PTSD: Triggers and flashbacks are often related to a specific traumatic event.
    • C-PTSD: Triggers can encompass a wide range of situations and relationships, as they relate to the complex trauma history.
  • Recovery Challenges:
    • PTSD: Recovery may involve processing the traumatic event and its impact on one’s life.
    • C-PTSD: Recovery is more complex due to the cumulative nature of the trauma and the need to address issues related to identity, self-worth, and interpersonal functioning.
  • Impaired Sense of Safety:
    • PTSD: Primarily involves a compromised sense of safety related to the traumatic event.
    • C-PTSD: Affects the individual’s overall sense of safety and trust in the world and in relationships.
  • Interpersonal Impact:
    • PTSD: May affect relationships but doesn’t always lead to a pattern of dysfunctional relationships.
    • C-PTSD: Often results in difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships and can perpetuate cycles of abuse or victimization.

How Might Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) Affect Scam Victims

Complex PTSD Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) can significantly impact individuals who have been victims of romance scams or fraud. Here’s how C-PTSD may affect these victims:

  • Emotional Dysregulation: Victims of romance scams or fraud often experience intense emotions, including betrayal, shame, grief, anger, and self-blame. C-PTSD can exacerbate emotional dysregulation, making it challenging for victims to manage these intense feelings. They may struggle with mood swings, persistent sadness, and difficulty in calming their emotional responses.
  • Distorted Self-Concept: C-PTSD can lead to a distorted self-concept, where victims may view themselves as gullible, foolish, or unworthy of love and trust. This distortion is compounded by the shame and self-blame often associated with falling for a scam. Victims may suffer from a diminished sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
  • Difficulty in Trusting: Victims of romance scams or fraud often face difficulty in trusting others. C-PTSD can intensify these trust issues, making it challenging for individuals to rebuild trust in relationships, including new friendships or potential romantic partnerships.
  • Repetitive Patterns: C-PTSD can perpetuate patterns of victimization. Victims may be vulnerable to falling into similar scams or abusive relationships due to their impaired ability to set boundaries and recognize warning signs. These repetitive patterns can hinder recovery and exacerbate the trauma.
  • Relationship Struggles: Victims may encounter difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. The scars of the scam experience, coupled with the effects of C-PTSD, can lead to issues such as fear of vulnerability, a sense of unworthiness, or heightened reactivity in relationships.
  • Isolation: Both the experience of the scam and C-PTSD symptoms can contribute to feelings of isolation. Victims may withdraw from social interactions, fearing judgment or further victimization. Isolation can hinder their recovery process.
  • Flashbacks and Triggers: C-PTSD may result in flashbacks or emotional triggers related to the scam experience. Certain situations, words, or interactions can bring back intense emotions and memories associated with the scam, further exacerbating distress.
  • Coping Mechanisms: Some individuals with C-PTSD may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or unhealthy relationships, as a way to numb emotional pain or regain a sense of control.
  • Recovery Challenges: C-PTSD complicates the recovery process for scam victims. Healing involves not only addressing the financial and emotional aftermath of the scam but also dealing with the deeper wounds and distortions that C-PTSD brings to the surface.
  • Need for Professional Help: Victims of romance scams or fraud with C-PTSD may benefit from professional mental health support. Trauma-focused therapy, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), can help victims process the trauma, develop healthier coping strategies, and rebuild their lives.

What might be more likely for Scam Victims to experience?

Individuals who have fallen victim to romance or relationship scams are at risk of experiencing a range of psychological and emotional challenges. The specific condition that may develop can vary among individuals, and it depends on factors such as their personal resilience, coping strategies, the duration and severity of the scam, and the presence of pre-existing vulnerabilities.

Here’s an overview of Three of the Potential Outcomes:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
    • Symptoms: PTSD can manifest with symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and emotional distress. Scam victims who experienced intense fear, threat, or witnessed violence during the scam might be more prone to PTSD.
    • Triggers: Traumatic memories or reminders of the scam can trigger PTSD symptoms.
    • Treatment: PTSD is typically treated with therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and medication.
  • Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD):
    • Symptoms: C-PTSD is an extended form of PTSD often associated with prolonged, interpersonal trauma. It includes typical PTSD symptoms and additional ones like emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and identity issues.
    • Triggers: Scam victims who endured prolonged manipulation, coercion, or exploitation may be more likely to develop C-PTSD.
    • Treatment: Treatment for C-PTSD involves therapies like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, along with medication for specific symptoms.
  • Complex Grief:
    • Symptoms: Complex grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder, involves intense and prolonged sorrow, longing, and difficulties in accepting the loss. It can lead to emotional numbness, bitterness, or a sense of emptiness.
    • Triggers: Scam victims may experience complex grief if they develop a deep emotional connection with the scammer and feel a genuine loss when the scam ends. The grief can be complex due to the betrayal involved.
    • Treatment: Complex grief is often treated with grief-focused therapy, which helps individuals process their emotions, memories, and the circumstances surrounding their loss.

Learn more about Complex Grief here.

It’s important to note that many scam victims may exhibit a mix of these emotional responses, as the experience of a romance or relationship scam can be multifaceted and emotionally complex. Additionally, individual responses to trauma can vary significantly.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing and treating C-PTSD can be complex because of the varied and persistent nature of the symptoms. Psychotherapy, particularly trauma-focused therapy, is a common approach to treatment. Therapy may focus on helping individuals process traumatic memories, develop coping strategies, and build healthier relationships. Medication can also be used to manage specific symptoms like depression or anxiety.

It’s important to note that complex PTSD is not an officially recognized diagnosis in all mental health systems, such as the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Instead, clinicians often use the term to describe a cluster of symptoms that are related to prolonged trauma.


Seeking professional help from therapists or counselors experienced in trauma and grief can be beneficial for scam victims. The choice of treatment should be tailored to the specific symptoms and needs of the individual. Over time, with the right support and intervention, many victims can work towards recovery and healing.

C-PTSD, as the name suggests, is more complex and pervasive than PTSD. It stems from prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences, especially within relationships. While both conditions can have a severe impact on one’s mental and emotional well-being, C-PTSD tends to affect a person’s core identity, relationships, and emotional regulation to a greater extent than PTSD. Both conditions, however, benefit from therapy and support to help individuals cope and heal.

C-PTSD can significantly affect individuals who have experienced romance scams or fraud.

It compounds the emotional distress and challenges that result from these scams, making recovery more complex. Recognizing the signs of C-PTSD and seeking professional assistance is crucial for victims to heal and regain a sense of control over their lives.

Symptoms of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) - image courtesy of Verywell Health
Differences between Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and regular PTSD - image courtesy of Verywell Health

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PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.


The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of the Society of Citizens Against Rleationship Scams Inc. The author is solely responsible for the content of their work. SCARS is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) section 230 from liability.







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