Complicated Bereavement vs Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Understanding the Differences and Overlaps

Distinguishing between complicated bereavement and post-traumatic stress disorder is no easy task, nor is recovery. But understanding why treatment is necessary for both will reveal the importance of overcoming grief and coping with trauma. Through the therapies and supports offered in residential treatment, you will begin to value the importance of learning to move forward free from the ties of your past experiences.

After she and her family survived a serious car accident, Karen was left to recover from her injuries and grieve the loss of her father, who passed away in the accident. It only took a month for her to heal physically, but mentally, she felt like a wreck. Each day was defined by intense emotions that she felt she could no longer control.

When traumatic events lead to long-lasting effects on your emotions, cognition, and behavior, it is indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the loss of a loved one is also a traumatic event that causes similar disruptions. When they become prolonged, it is classified as complicated bereavement. Left untreated, it can persist for months or years. So how are the two distinguished? Is it possible to have both?

Complicated bereavement and post-traumatic stress disorder have overlaps and differences, and they can also manifest simultaneously. If you believe that you are struggling with one or both, a residential treatment program can provide you with a comprehensive diagnosis that identifies your underlying issues and connects you with the necessary solutions. Although these mental health issues make coping with life very difficult at times, the path to recovery will help you move forward and live alongside your past instead of being held back by it.

Distinguishing Between Complicated Bereavement and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Both PTSD and complicated bereavement stem from a trauma, but the treatment plans for each differ. The therapies and medications used to form a treatment plan must address the unique obstacles of whichever disorder is present. In cases in which they co-occur, an effective plan must be adapted to treat both.

Some of the most common symptoms of each disorder include:

Complicated Bereavement:

  • Persistent focus on the loss
  • Intense, daily longing
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Replaying aspects of death in mind
  • Intense attachment or rejection of reminders
  • Bitterness and anger at the world

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  • Intense flashbacks
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Sensory experiences that trigger trauma
  • Unwelcome thoughts
  • Paranoia and fear
  • Anxiety
  • Jumpiness

The trauma created by these disorders seeps into your everyday life and makes it difficult to function. But the main difference is the defining emotions for each. For complicated bereavement, it’s longing, while PTSD is more associated with a sense of fear and powerlessness. The loss of a loved one may turn your world into a lonely place that does nothing but remind you of your loss. You may feel lost, even bitter, and these feelings may seem like a burden you will carry for the rest of your life.

Living with PTSD is similarly disruptive, but without the focus on personal loss. Although situations like childhood trauma and sexual assault are very personal, the paranoia, anxiety, and jumpiness stem from the fear created by the trauma. No matter where you are or who you’re around, you can feel equally as on edge, and the memories of the traumatic event may trigger fears that it could happen again. With complicated grief, there is no fear of experiencing the same loss—only regret and longing.

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Why Treatment is Necessary for Both

Regardless of which you struggle with, professional treatment is necessary to begin to process of recovery. Even if you are unsure whether you have one or the other (or both), reaching out for professional help is a step in the right direction. Through medical diagnostics and psychological testing, you have access to compassionate professionals who can determine the driving forces behind your struggles and help you overcome them through a personalized treatment plan.

Overcoming Grief

Experiencing grief is normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. When your loved one is alive, the comfort of their presence sets off neural reward activity in your brain. After they pass away, adapting to the loss parallels the disappearance of this reward activity. Over time, we learn to cope with the death and don’t expect this same reward. But if you struggle with complicated grief, your brain continues to crave it.

Using various treatment modalities, you will learn to re-contextualize your loss and eventually adapt to the absence of your loved one. Both individual and group therapy can help you learn to remember your loved one in a way that isn’t defined by longing or bitterness. You will connect with others that are experiencing the same struggles and realize you are not alone. These experiences will show you that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting them—it means memorializing and remembering them in a way that gives your life new meaning and purpose.

Coping with Trauma

Traumatic events trigger the fight-or-flight response in your brain to such an extreme degree that it throws it off-balance. You become hypersensitive to cues that remind you of the trauma and eventually simply living feels like an uphill struggle. Breaking out of this pattern is difficult because it’s almost impossible to take your mind elsewhere when your adrenaline is flooding your body and your fear response is through the roof.

With tools such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, you will have a safe space that allows you to learn how to accept your painful memories in a neutral light, no matter how long that might take. The end goal is to give them less sway over your brain’s biology and, in turn, your life. You will also be able to experience holistic therapies like yoga and meditation, which promote acceptance of the thoughts that flow through your psyche at any given moment and minimization of the impact that they exert over you.

Learning to Move Forward

Both complicated bereavement and post-traumatic stress disorder are complex mental health challenges that require compassionate, adaptive solutions. And in comprehensive residential treatment, you will have all of these solutions available to you in a safe, comforting environment. Free from the distractions of everyday life, you will realize that you can move forward from your past traumas and begin harnessing the potential of the future.

In residential treatment, Karen learned to cope with the trauma of her accident and grief of her loss. Reminders of the accident affected her less and less until she was able to accept the reality of her past and present situation without being overwhelmed by it. She also began to remember the person her father was and the impact he had, and still has, on her life. Though she misses him, she has learned to cherish her memories of him, rather than feeling weighed down by them, and is grateful for her life and the loved ones who continue to support her today.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders and childhood trauma as well as co-occurring substance use disorders and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path toward healing.