Complex PTSD is a debilitating condition caused by severe, prolonged or repeated trauma, especially childhood trauma. Like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s a mental health disorder that affects the body’s response to stress by rendering memory fragmentary and unreliable, therefore altering the body’s stress hormones. Individuals become subject to mood changes, personality changes, changes in appetite, alterations in sleeping habits and memory fluctuations. These fluctuations can consist of the denial of reoccurring traumatic memories and fear that such memories will reoccur because the threat remains present.
By sending ongoing distress signals that encourage an individual’s withdrawal from the present-day experience, complex PTSD causes traumatic stress to reproduce itself upon the body. It can also be diagnosed in an individual after the event of a life-threatening situation, or in the result of a traumatic event, like in the case of a natural disaster.
What Causes C-PTSD?
A traumatic event doesn’t have to involve something as serious as an assault, an armed burglary, a home invasion or another violent crime. Rather, a traumatic event is any situation that involves a lack of emotional regulation, a severe stress response, the experience of harm or distress or involves a threat to one’s mental and emotional stability or wellbeing.
According to this definition of what constitutes trauma, parental abandonment could be as triggering as a car accident or as psychologically damaging as witnessing domestic violence or someone’s death.
Causes of complex PTSD include emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse or interpersonal violence. Symptoms of complex PTSD include any of the following: isolation, frequent loss of concentration, reliving past traumatic events in the present moment, irritability, dissociation, inability to control one’s emotions, disrupted identity development, distrust of others, difficulty forming relationships, memory loss (i.e. blanking or spacing out), self-harm, suicide attempts and much more.
Factors such as parental neglect, exploitation and vulnerability or susceptibility to risk factors can exacerbate this condition.
Complex trauma, otherwise known as complex PTSD, or C-PTSD for short, can often result in the emotional build-up of painful, suppressed memories and negative emotions. When unexpressed feelings are bottled up, or if a person lacks the support needed to contend with them, a person experiences emotional deregulation that causes uncontrollable feelings to arise. Emotional volatility often results in outbursts of explosive rage or persistent feelings of shame and panic.
As memories come flooding to the surface, the person experiencing internal disarray may, in an attempt to deny, avoid or stifle unpleasant feelings, dissociate from trauma completely. When this happens, feelings of guilt or self-doubt can set in, and the person recovering from trauma may experience flashbacks (emotional or situational), nightmares, insomnia or intrusive thoughts and memory recollections.
Traumatized individuals can literally feel trauma inside their body, which may trigger suicidal ideation or alienation as a product of ongoing sadness.
It is not uncommon for people with C-PTSD to develop anxiety and depression, or struggle with substance abuse and depersonalization, feeling disconnected from themselves. Worse, episodes of C-PTSD can be so distressing and disturbing that sufferers may dissociate so intensely that they are unable to fill in the gaps of their memory and identify the source of their pain.
This is why it is important to identify dissociative symptoms that change the personality of the traumatized individual, as these symptoms can cause the person to, for example, become unable to cope with intense feelings or become hostile toward other people.
Victims of complex trauma were often denied a feeling of safety at an early age or were exposed to harm in early childhood. They might have experienced multiple forms of victimization, all of which make it difficult to cope without dreaming of escape, rescue or refuge. The thought of opening up to other people can frighten and intimidate them. Such individuals tend to contain memories in the past to avoid dealing with the overwhelming aftermath of exploring the effects of stored fear and panic.
It is nearly impossible for individuals suffering from complex trauma to experience comfort by embracing buried memories or unresolved emotions, but if they do not confront them and embrace discomfort, the frightening, all too vivid memories of past traumatization can haunt, control and imprison them in their thoughts.
PTSD Versus C-PTSD
PTSD and C-PTSD both involve hyperarousal, nightmares, paranoia, emotional flashbacks, difficulty controlling emotional responses, avoidance of certain situations, the loss of memories or reliving of them, triggers or physical symptoms such as migraines, stomach aches, dizziness, nausea and chest pains.
However, PTSD is more of a short-lived psychiatric condition caused by a single event, and C-PTSD is a long-lasting medical condition caused by continuous events. This is because, in addition to the aforementioned symptoms that it shares with PTSD, complex trauma warps an individual’s self-concept and often results in changes of consciousness.
It involves a deep breach of trust, a tested belief system and a conviction that the world is unsafe, which often results in a change of worldview and a collapse of identity that is assured of meaningfulness. A feeling of purposelessness causes people to experience hopelessness or emptiness. Ultimately, it results in a loss of faith in humanity.
Individuals who suffer from C-PTSD modify their values and alter their faith in people according to the harm they experienced. For instance, if a woman was emotionally and psychologically abused by her parents during childhood and into adolescence, not only will she believe adults are dangerous and can’t be trusted, but she will also believe the world is faulty for being unable to protect her from the experience of injury by the ones closest to her.
She will develop bad faith in others, or lose faith in herself as a consequence of having been traumatized, believing herself internally damaged or broken. She will struggle to maintain the conviction that the world can offer her guaranteed safety because the experience of trauma displaces her as unsafe and challenges her view that the world is good.
This is because trauma distorts both her self-perception and worldly perspectives. This may inspire a change in her behavior and attitudes as well. It’s not surprising. Child abuse, neglect or abandonment have been found to permanently change the structure of the brain.
Sometimes individuals dealing with complex trauma will shut down out of fear of re-experiencing a distressing memory or encountering flashbacks of domestic violence, for example. Others will judge themselves in a negative light.
How To Deal With C-PTSD
In order to overhaul this belief, individuals must confront their underlying thoughts, core beliefs and repressed memories, although this process can be painful, and memory retrieval is not guaranteed since trauma dislodges large chunks of time and causes the brain to struggle to process or interpret memory gaps.
Untangling the complex web that trauma weaves can help people rebuild their psyche and repair their sense of self by separating the experience of a traumatic event from their feelings and beliefs about themselves.
Survivors of complex trauma or C-PTSD don’t have to be helpless to shame, and they don’t have to mutilate their perception of themselves. They don’t have to succumb to numbness, suicidal thoughts or the breakdown of their system of meaning. They don’t have to feel alien as a result of their fractured identity development. Most importantly, they don’t have to embody fear of their perpetrators. They are not alone.
Complex trauma or complex PTSD is an enduring condition, but it is not a hopeless one. With the help of psychotherapy or other professional services and treatment practices, such as grounding techniques, individuals can engage in healing and recovery. C-PTSD is not a death sentence.