Demystifying Complex PTSD

by | Oct 12, 2022

This is an ABSTRACT:

After being misdiagnosed and misunderstood for years, complex post-traumatic stress disorder has been officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). We already know post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be a common response to a traumatic event, manifesting sometimes as intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. But experts have long argued that some complex trauma survivors demonstrate a broader range of symptoms. These symptoms include self-organization disturbances that can even cause changes in personality.

What Is Complex PTSD Using Words Anyone Can Understand?

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, also called C-PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that may develop after a person experiences multiple traumatic events. Multiple traumatic events can indicate trauma sustained over a period of time or trauma suffered repeatedly. This trauma often begins in childhood and can last into adulthood. C-PTSD can also result after experiencing domestic violence or narcissistic abuse. Experiencing several traumatic events has severe effects on a person’s concept of self and how they relate to others.

How Is C-PTSD Different From PTSD?

While traditional PTSD is the result of one or two traumatic events, complex PTSD is the result of multiple traumatic events compounded over a lifetime. The main difference between PTSD and complex PTSD is the level of exposure. Complex PTSD develops after prolonged or repeated exposure to trauma.

For many years, complex PTSD has been misdiagnosed as traditional PTSD or personality disorder, which has made it difficult to treat effectively. The most devastating effects of C-PTSD are often marked by a loss of personal autonomy, a loss of identity, and/or a loss of hope. A person suffering from complex PTSD may be unable to trust their instincts or make decisions for themselves.

Symptoms of Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD shares some symptoms with traditional PTSD. Common symptoms of both PTSD and complex PTSD can look like the following:

  • Avoidant behaviors; avoiding foods, places, clothes, or situations that are associated with the traumatic event
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance
  • Dizziness, nausea, physical illness linked to a memory of the traumatic event

For those suffering from complex PTSD, the symptoms may be more aggressive and longer-lasting than PTSD. Symptoms of complex PTSD can cause disruption to daily life and long-term damage. Common complex symptoms include:

  • Inability to cope with strong emotions
  • Inability to recognize unhealthy relationship patterns
  • Inability to live in the present
  • Loss of identity
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Dissociation
  • Amnesia
  • Obsession with an abuser or perpetrator

What Are Complex PTSD Triggers?

For a person who has PTSD or complex PTSD, the trigger elicits a fight, flight, or freeze response. The brain alerts the body to danger, even when there’s no real threat. Because of this response, sometimes called an amygdala hijack, a person with complex PTSD may experience an ordinary interaction as if they are experiencing a traumatic event all over again.

Triggers can be random, but they often can be associated with a specific element from the traumatic event. A person with C-PTSD can be triggered by a specific situation, smell, sound, subject matter, person, or even food. Triggers can also provoke flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and anxiety.

Healing From C-PTSD

Complex PTSD can affect every part of a person’s life, but healing from C-PTSD is possible. Treatment options may include personalized treatment plans built from a person’s specific history of trauma. And because the trauma happened over a prolonged period, complex PTSD may require longer treatment with a wider variety of interventions. Trauma-informed treatment may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – works to establish healthy thought patterns
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) – works to promote healthy coping behaviors and self-organization
  • Somatic Experiencing  to heal traumatic stress stored in the body and regain a sense of safety
  • Physical activity

Since C-PTSD can make it hard to trust others, a person living with this disorder may experience feelings of isolation, unworthiness, and estrangement. Make an attempt to engage in a daily task or do something nice for yourself. People with complex PTSD may find it difficult to accomplish ordinary tasks, so set an attainable goal and celebrate every success, no matter how small! And if you find these tasks challenging, it may be time to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Attend a support group or connect with others online. It can be helpful to hear about different points in the process.

When it Comes to Complex PTSD, Rediscovering Yourself Means Trusting Yourself

Trauma destroys your trust in yourself and causes you to doubt … well, everything. One of the goals of recovery is to nurture your internal conversation and restore trust in your instincts and abilities. And a big part of trusting yourself involves letting go of any missing pieces. You’re already under a lot of pressure– if you don’t remember something, that’s okay! Don’t let that discourage you from becoming the main character in your story again.

But despite the concerns, research confirms that intensive trauma-informed treatment can decrease the symptoms of complex PTSD. Recovery takes time, but healing is possible!

So as you recover, assess your situation by asking yourself:

  • Can you recognize any unhealthy relationship patterns?
  • Do you avoid strong emotions?
  • Do you feel detached or disconnected?
  • Do you feel paralyzed by feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness?
  • Is it hard for you to connect with others?

If so, give yourself time and continue working with a licensed and trauma-based expert therapist to recover fully.

Getting Help For Your Complex PTSD

If you think C-PTSD is taking control of your life, we can help. At New Hope Counseling and Wellness Center, the treatment is centered on your specific history, and not just the condition. If you have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, you don’t have to go through it alone– trauma-informed care is available. The goal of counseling and therapy is to help you identify trauma, deconstruct triggers, and develop healthy emotional habits and relationships.

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