Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/31/2022
Anxiety and PTSD have become common talking points in recent years as society generally moves toward a better understanding of mental health. Between the casual discussion of mood disorders between friends and peers and the increased acceptance of therapy and medication as treatments for mental illness, we’ve come along way in just a couple of generations.
But problems remain. One of the biggest problems, arguably, is the interchangeable way in which we discuss mood disorders. The truth is, most people can’t tell you the difference between anxiety vs PTSD.
These people have good reason to be confused — there’s a lot of overlap to the symptoms of these two conditions and they’re sometime present at the same time. More importantly, there may be days when one is indistinguishable from the other.
In the big picture, though, anxiety and PTSD are two very different conditions and they may require different treatments for effective management of symptoms.
Which one do you have? Is it both? What should you do about it? The answers to these questions and more, starting with some common ground.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a psychiatric disorder caused by trauma in the extreme.
People with PTSD have been in life-threatening situations, had their lives or their safety threatened or have been in situations where the potential for harm or loss of life was greatly increased.
The result of that experience — that trauma — can cause a variety of mental and physical problems for the person who experiences them.
What are those problems and symptoms? Well, a person with PTSD can experience sadness, irritability, sleep problems (like insomnia and nightmares), intrusive memories, dissociation and, most pointedly, an increase in anxious behaviors.
A person with PTSD can be easily startled or triggered by noises and other sensory triggers that remind them of the traumatic event. These can vary greatly from person to person.
A person who experiences a sexual assault at a party might experience PTSD from hearing the music again, and a person whose PTSD comes from combat experiences might be triggered by flashing lights or loud noises.
These responses to triggers can be extreme, and even when they’re not, they can be intense or exhausting. They can result in avoidance behaviors like social anxiety, and when a social anxiety disorder comes into play, it can feel isolating.
Here’s where anxiety comes in: almost all of what we just said can be said of anxiety in a way.
PTSD episodes can often mirror the symptoms of severe anxiety, acute anxiety disorder and panic disorder — like panic attacks, for instance.
Instead of intrusive memories, it’s intrusive thoughts. And if not dealt with, the symptoms of PTSD can become chronic, leading to mental health decline, which eventually opens the doors for depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.
See the slippery slope here?
It can very hard to distinguish between PTSD and anxiety without a deep dive into the symptoms you’re experiencing
Let’s look at a bit of medical history for context.
Don’t worry, we only need to go back to 2011, when the folks who write the guide to mental disorders were arguing over whether or not PTSD should be its own condition or remain a subtype of anxiety.
It’s not the first time this has been debated. Part of the problem is that, while the symptoms and cause may differ slightly, the central figure in both anxiety and PTSD is fear — fear that something may happen in the future.
In anxiety, that thing is hypothetical and not based in a realistic appraisal of the reality you live in. The same is true for PTSD, but the fear is specifically tied to the past — a fear that the past may happen again.
It’s especially hard to distinguish between the two when you take into consideration that not everyone knows where a trauma came from, and that, at least at the moment, we don’t fully understand what causes anxiety, except to say that genetics and environment play their roles in it.
So, what about a combo anxiety-PTSD dynamic duo — can that happen? Unfortunately yes, you can absolutely have both.
Anxiety and PTSD are frequent comorbidities, though this may have to do with differential diagnosis issues. The medical community can sometimes struggle to differentiate when there’s not a lot of background on why the symptoms are occurring.
But to keep it short and sweet, you can have both, and if you do have both, these issues can be much harder to treat. The good news is that many of the treatments for PTSD can overlap with anxiety treatment.
Generally speaking, anxiety is best treated through a combination of therapy, lifestyle changes and anxiety medications.
Generalized anxiety disorder and other forms of anxiety disorders can sometimes be treated with simple changes to your diet, sleep and exercise routine.
Getting regular rest at the same time each night, remembering to take care of your body and avoiding things like caffeine and other drugs that may affect you can do wonders for some symptoms in some cases.
Medications like antidepressants can also help people with anxiety. Antidepressants can alter the same neurotransmitters that affect depression to better regulate anxiety symptoms as well.
And therapy types like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can benefit your ability to find and maintain control as anxious thoughts and emotions rear up.
Antidepressants and taking care of your body can also help with post-traumatic stress disorder, as can therapy, but the type of therapy used by your provider may differ depending on your particular circumstances.
In any of these cases, the best treatment comes from a healthcare professional’s recommendations — not from your own guessing game, and certainly not from an article on the Internet.
If you’re struggling with symptoms of anxiety, PTSD or something that you can’t quite define, and it’s affecting your day to day life, it may be time to talk to a healthcare professional.
Posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety can manifest as physical symptoms or things like intense fear, and can reduce your ability to function in social situations. It's the same for many other mental health disorders, and the only way to overcome it is to seek out treatment.
If you're ready to seek treatment, consider our online therapy, which is a fast, effective and convenient way to talk to a mental health professional now, from your own home.
If you’re still in the learning stages, check out our guides to PTSD symptoms in women, anxiety disorders and medications for anxiety.
Whether you get help from us or elsewhere, your past and future fears aren’t going anywhere until you act in the present.