Complex trauma: what is it?

Posted by: Cayla Bailey

Complex trauma: what is it? 

Many of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives. Whether it is experiencing a death of a loved one, a severe accident, divorce, natural disaster, sexual violence or abuse, or even moving to a new location.  What defines trauma is not the content of an event itself but the psychological or emotional response to it. People process these experiences differently due to their perspective, or the lens through which one views the world through, which is dependent on their previous life experiences. When an individual experiences a significant traumatic event they may experience symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and their view of the world may be altered.  It is normal to feel scared, anxious, sad, and disconnected in the aftermath of a traumatic event but if you become stuck in those negative feelings you may be suffering from symptoms of PTSD. When an individual experiences trauma repeatedly and cumulatively over a period of time, such as domestic abuse, severe child abuse, repeated sexual violence, and repeated exposure to military violence, this is often considered complex trauma. Each experience of trauma is compounded by the previous experience which could have serious impact on the individual’s mental health. Symptoms of PTSD and Complex Posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) often overlap but the impacts of complex trauma are often more extensive and debilitating for an individual. This article will help you understand what C-PTSD is and some of the symptoms associated with it. If you find yourself struggling with similar feelings or experiences mentioned in this article, please know that you are not alone and recovery is possible. Understanding what is happening with you is the first step to understanding what you can do to feel better. 

Complex trauma can be summarized as traumatic events or experiences that are 1) repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative, 2) often interpersonal that involves direct harm, exploitation and maltreatment that includes neglect, abandonment, or abuse 3) and often occur during developmentally vulnerable times such as childhood or adolescence but may also occur in later life. Individuals who experience complex PTSD may suffer from a wide range of symptoms that could impact not only the way in which they interact with the world, but also how they view themselves and others inside their own world. Symptoms of complex PTSD may include avoiding people, places, and things that remind you of the trauma, having flashbacks or nightmares, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, somatic symptoms such as dizziness or nausea when remembering the trauma, hyperarousal or a continuous state of your mind and body being at high alert, hypersensitive startle responses, impulsivity, self-destructive tendencies, difficulty trusting others or feeling intimate, negative self perceptions, or believing that the world is a dangerous place.

An individual who experiences complex trauma may struggle with a negative self-view in which you may feel guilty, ashamed, or worthless. You may feel stuck with a constant sense of danger and painful memories that leave you feeling helpless. You may also experience difficulties with emotional regulation and relationships. Because of this constant sense of danger coupled with the painful memories of your trauma, many individuals may find that emotions feel very overwhelming and try to avoid them or suppress them. This can cause you to have difficulty regulating them when you are experiencing intense emotions, which may result in irritability, anger, or deep sadness. You may express this by lashing out at the people around them or even themselves through self-harm or suicidal ideation. Difficulty regulating emotions, coupled with the idea that the world is a dangerous place and that people can’t be trusted, may lead to difficulties in maintaining relationships and result in feeling alienated or isolated. You may experience guilt and shame, or believe that they are somehow at fault for the traumatic events that they have endured. Negative self-perceptions may even make you feel undeserving of close or intimate relationships.  

 This dynamic of symptoms can cause a great deal of distress and may cause an individual to engage in behaviors in an attempt to manage these symptoms or make them less intense. Individuals with a history of complex trauma may be more vulnerable to act out by abusing alcohol or drugs in an attempt to deal with or forget about the trauma that they have experienced. This behavior may represent a coping mechanism or an attempt to regain a feeling of emotional control. Similarly, they may engage in self-harming behaviors to feel in control of their pain or to refocus their pain on something that they deem more manageable or “safe.” It is important for the traumatized individual and their loved ones to understand that these are serving the individual as a coping mechanism to manage intense feelings in some way but that they can be dangerous and counterproductive to the individual’s treatment. 

If you have found that you related to some of the experiences described in this article, there are ways in which you can seek help to overcome some of these hardships. Individuals who have experienced profound trauma are interacting with the world through the lens of that trauma but treatment can help to rebuild a healthier lens. Psychotherapy can help to stabilize the individual so that the person can address and process their feelings, including distrust and negative self and worldviews. It also helps to teach the individual how to manage intense emotions and anxiety or flashbacks in relation to their trauma. Group therapy can also be very beneficial because it connects individuals to others who are experiencing similar issues.  It also helps to show the traumatized individual that they are not alone and provide a safe space for them to express themselves and be supported by other members, giving them the opportunity to trust others and be trusted by others. Therapeutic techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) coupled with talk therapy has also shown to help provide some relief. While you cannot erase the trauma that you may have experienced in your life, you can take back the control that your trauma is robbing from your life.