Are PTSD and Anxiety Connected?

Because of overlapping symptoms and frequent comorbidity, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety are highly intertwined. In fact, until 2013, PTSD was itself classified as an anxiety disorder. The main difference between these two conditions is that with anxiety, symptoms such as intrusive thoughts and persistent worry generally do not originate from a traumatic event as with PTSD. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion that occurs in response to extreme worry or stress. While anxiety can sometimes be useful, when it becomes so intense that it interferes with normal functioning, it may be considered a clinical disorder.

Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder and phobias. These disorders are characterized by nervousness, physical symptoms (like shaking, sweating or exhaustion), difficulty concentrating and avoiding thoughts related to the fear. 

What is PTSD?

Like anxiety, PTSD is associated with unbearable feelings of fear and worry. However, PTSD follows experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident, combat experience, sexual assault or an experience of violence.

While trauma can stir up negative emotions in anyone, when those sensations linger long after the danger has passed, PTSD can develop and cause such intense symptoms that daily life becomes impossible. 

A person with PTSD may experience flashbacks, intrusive or uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma and avoidant behaviors. PTSD typically causes people to be on-edge and hypervigilant. Severe reactions to trauma can also cause feelings of anger or sadness, or lead to self-isolation.

How are PTSD and anxiety connected?

PTSD and anxiety often overlap because the two disorders share several symptoms. Side effects for both PTSD and anxiety include:

  • Intense worry or fear
  • Uncontrollable thoughts about something that is feared
  • Distressing physical reactions
  • Avoiding people, places or things that provoke anxiety
  • Negative self-perception
  • Struggling to concentrate or remember details
  • Increasing fear over the course of time
  • Difficulty completing daily tasks due to fear
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Irritability

Anxiety disorders may build or occur for a long time, stemming from childhood. Anxiety does not necessarily have a distinct stimulus. People with certain temperaments may be more prone to developing anxiety.

PTSD, on the other hand, is caused by a singular or repeated traumatic event. Like anxiety, personality may predispose someone to struggle with PTSD, but it’s not the only cause. You may be struggling with PTSD if your worry has a traceable starting point.

Moreover, people with both PTSD and anxiety often show avoidant behaviors, but the way this plays out is unique to each disorder. For PTSD, this usually looks like avoiding things that remind an individual of the traumatic experience. For anxiety, the fear may occur in many settings (generalized anxiety disorder) or in regards to one specific thing (phobias).

Which comes first, PTSD or anxiety?

With most mental health conditions, there’s no telling exactly how mental disorders develop, nor why they affect some individuals and not others. The onset of a mental illness follows a combination of various factors, from biological susceptibility to environmental stressors.

In general, there is no definitive answer to which develops first, anxiety or PTSD. However, each person may be able to notice symptoms of one before the other. 

While there is no clear precursor, there is an association of comorbidity between PTSD and anxiety. A 2010 study by the American Psychological Association found a strong link between anxiety sensitivity and PTSD symptom severity, indicating that each contributes to the other. If someone is affected by PTSD or anxiety, he or she will be more likely to experience the other as well.

How do you treat PTSD and anxiety?

PTSD and anxiety are both typically treated with psychotherapy, or talk-therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, exposure therapy, interpersonal therapy and other frameworks have been effective in treating both conditions. Medications can also be helpful in treatment for PTSD and anxiety. 

Whether you struggle with one disorder or both, the best treatment is always personalized care from a team of dedicated and knowledgeable professionals. Your team may include a therapist, counselor, social worker, psychiatrist, nurses and others.

Where do I get PTSD and anxiety treatment?

Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling can create an individualized treatment tailored to fit your needs. Qualified, trained counselors provide trauma-sensitive services that can help you overcome your fears and move into a bold and meaningful life. Get in touch today to reclaim your future.