The Difference Between PTSD and Typical Stress Responses

For people who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the stress response is heightened and can lead to physical and psychological distress far beyond what is experienced in a normal stress response. In addition, people with PTSD tend to struggle with symptoms in situations where a person without the disorder would not have a stress response. Knowing the difference between PTSD responses and average stress responses can help you understand what you or a loved one are going through.

Average Stress Response

Everyone deals with stress at some point or other in life. Whether in response to a physical threat or to a perceived social or emotional risk, the stress response is the body’s way of preparing to face or flee from danger. It involves a series of physical, psychological, and behavioral reactions that enable people to deal with the stressor and then return to their normal behaviors.

The effects of a normal stress response on the body include:

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches.
  • Muscle tension or pain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Digestive upset.
  • Accelerated respiration and heart rate.
  • Goosebumps.

These symptoms are the result of the body releasing certain hormones that prepare the body for what is called the fight-or-flight response. This response prepares the body to deal with the danger physically by either facing it or running away.

The symptoms can be stronger if the threat is perceived to be a greater danger. However, after the stress has ended, the body releases additional hormones that return everything to normal over a short period of time. Even for those who experience chronic stress, it is possible to return the body’s response to normal once the stressor is resolved.

Psychological Symptoms

In a person who is experiencing a normal stress response, the hormones involved also have a powerful effect on the brain. This corresponds with the physical response to heighten the person’s awareness and increase reaction time when it may be critical. The person may experience the following psychological symptoms in response to normal stress:

  • Mild to moderate anxiety.
  • Increased focus and attention.
  • Insomnia.
  • Moodiness.

Again, these symptoms can be fairly easily resolved once the stress is removed, even in the case of chronic stress.


An individual who is dealing with a normal stress response may respond with abnormal behaviors for a while that might be upsetting to the individual and loved ones. For example, the mood changes and anxiety associated with stress can make personal interactions and relationships more strained.

A person dealing with stress might also indulge in substance use or other behaviors meant to self-medicate the feelings that arise from stress. Overeating or using alcohol, tranquilizers, or other drugs might make a person feel more in control during the stress reaction.

Again, when the stressor is resolved, a person dealing with the normal stress response is more likely than a person with PTSD to cease these behaviors and return to their typical behavior.

PTSD Response

soldier with post traumatic stress disorder

Rather than simply having a temporary effect on physical health, the PTSD response can have both acute and chronic symptoms. These include:

Physical Symptoms

As described by the National Center for PTSD, research has shown that people with PTSD are likely to have more lasting problems with their health than those who do not have PTSD. Some of the physical issues include:

  • Musculoskeletal problems.
  • Heart disease.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders.

Research is still being done on the prevalence of these issues and how PTSD affects them. Nevertheless, it is evident that people who experience trauma are more likely to experience chronic health issues.

Psychological Symptoms

For the person with PTSD, the emotional and cognitive response is heightened compared to that of a person who does not have PTSD. In fact, someone with PTSD maintains many of the psychological symptoms of stress chronically even when there is no stressor around. For example, a person with PTSD may have heightened anxiety and hyper-attentiveness even in a safe situations, like going out to dinner.

Additionally, people with PTSD have psychological symptoms specific to the disorder that include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event through nightmares or flashbacks.
  • Displaying intense emotion when confronted with reminders of the event.
  • Feeling hypervigilant at all times.
  • Having extreme responses to minor stimuli such as being startled.


Individuals with PTSD may use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate in response to the symptoms associated with the disorder. As a result, people with PTSD are more likely to experience substance use disorders and severe depression or anxiety.

PTSD results in a chemical and communication problem within the brain that leads to these heightened emotions and physical responses. The individual with PTSD may react in more extreme ways to stressors or unexpected events. Outbursts or defensive reactions can be provoked very easily. This can put a great strain on relationships and make the person uncomfortable or fearful of being in public places where a panic attack or violent reaction may occur.

The struggle with PTSD is much more intense than with a normal stress response; however, it can be resolved through caring and careful treatment. A variety of therapies, such as trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy or EMDR can be beneficial in helping the individual understand the symptoms of PTSD and learn to manage them, leading to a more positive future.

Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment in Lafayette, NJ

If you or a loved one is struggling with co-occurring disorders, there is help. At our inpatient rehab in New Jersey, the specialists at Sunrise House Treatment Center use evidence-based addiction-focused healthcare to help individuals struggling with addiction and mental health disorders find meaningful recovery.

Contact our helpful and knowledgeable admissions navigators at to learn more about our levels of care, what to expect in inpatient rehab, and starting the admissions process. They can also give you more information about using your insurance for rehab. If you’re underinsured or don’t have insurance, they can also answer your questions about other ways to for rehab.

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