Do I have Complex PTSD?
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a proposed disorder that stems mainly from ongoing childhood trauma. PTSD has been a formal disorder for many years, originating as “shell shock” in the 1940s when men coming home from war began to suffer traumatic consequences. It currently affects victims of many traumas, including war, sexual assault, vehicle accidents, and other life-threatening situations. Most of these refer to single events or short periods of time, though–which is what differentiates PTSD from C-PTSD.
The Differences Between Complex PTSD and PTSD
Trauma in psychology is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Complex PTSD is a much more complicated scenario than PTSD, and consequently takes longer to treat. Normal PTSD, (also termed uncomplicated PTSD,) usually affects patients in adulthood, and mostly results from single events or short periods of time, which is what differentiates PTSD from C-PTSD. For PTSD patients who undergo therapy, healing and recovery can take place within a few months. C-PTSD often takes much longer to treat.
Some examples of PTSD include:
- Experiences in war
- an abusive relationship
- physical attack such as rape
- traffic accident
- experiencing violence in the workforce
In contrast, C-PTSD often originates in childhood and stems from trauma that was ongoing and often inescapable.. Since the events occurred during childhood while the brain was still developing, and the trauma itself is often relational in nature, it is difficult to establish the kind of trust and containing environment that is necessary to achieve long-term recovery
Examples of trauma that causes Complex PTSD include:
- Childhood physical or sexual abuse
- Chronic bullying
- Sex trafficking
- Witnessing a long illness or ongoing suffering of a loved one
- Chronic neglect
What Does Complex PTSD Look Like??
With both traumatic disorders, victims experience a variety of symptoms that negatively impact their lives. Trauma victims in both cases experience flashbacks of their trauma, nightmares, paranoia and bursts of emotion. They often live in fear even after they are safe and develop a strong startle response.
What makes Complex PTSD different from PTSD is in the impact that it has on the victim. The effect of ongoing or repeated trauma changes the brain of the victim at the core level. It warps the way the survivor views the world, themselves, their spirituality, and the people around them in profound ways. Additionally, victims with C-PTSD have trouble with memory processing, attention, and other executive functions. Prolonged stress and trauma can also produce excess cortisol, leading to inflammatory and autoimmune comorbidity conditions. So not only is their state of mind compromised, but their physical health as well.
The Effects of Complex PTSD in Daily Life
These are some of the common experiences we see with C-PTSD. These problems are often misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, and other problems.
It is understandable that after experiencing repeated trauma with a developing brain, it may be hard for the survivor to regulate their emotions. To others, it may seem like their emotions are unfounded or blown out of proportion. These intense emotions will often go unchecked unless the victim identifies their emotional problems and takes charge in learning to regulate them in therapy.
There are a few types of flashbacks that result from trauma.
Somatic flashbacks occur as sensations of pain or discomfort in areas of the body that were affected by the trauma. Somatic flashbacks are qualified when there is no other health/physical issues to explain the sensation, and there is a trigger to the brain that makes the body “feel” the trauma again.
Visual Flashbacks are moments of memory that trick the victim into thinking they are experiencing the trauma again. Complex PTSD survivors must deal with reliving their experiences due to these visual flashbacks.
The emotional flashback is the most common for survivors and yet, the least understood. Emotions from the past are triggered, yet don’t reflect what is currently happening. On the outside, it seems to others and even to the victim that they are acting emotionally irrational. Without so much as a visual trigger to go along with the emotional trigger, this can be a very confusing experience for the survivor, and it may even be difficult for them to identify what emotions they are feeling.
Deep Fear of Trust
Another understandable trait is distrust of others. This makes sense especially when the survivor was victimized by family members or other close relationships. This list includes parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, coaches, etc. When trauma is ongoing, it wires the brain for fear and distrust. Survivors find it difficult to build trust and even when trust is established it can easily collapse. There is often hypervigilance for cues that they might be betrayed.
Loss of faith can show up in several ways for survivors with Complex PTSD. It’s typical to question or experience a total loss of faith in themselves, in people, in their religious beliefs, and even the world as a whole. C-PTSD survivors often view people as potentially abusive and express perceptions of the world as a dangerous place. In terms of spirituality, survivors have a hard time correlating the abuse that happened to them with a loving God, and often abandon their faith.
Hopelessness and helplessness
Because these survivors have endured ongoing trauma, they’re likely to adopt a permanent feeling of hopelessness about their futures, themselves and the world around them. Even after the period of trauma has ended, enduring the challenging symptoms of C-PTSD continue to make life challenging.
While each complex PTSD case is different, it is common for the abuser to place blame on the victim, which they will often carry around until therapy can help heal them from this toxic thinking. Perpetrators may use coercion, invalidation, manipulation and other forms of psychological abuse to carry out their behavior with the victim. In addition, for victims of sexual abuse, there is an added complexity with the way they feel about their bodies, their health and their sexuality. After such a terrible violation, survivors may believe they are damaged goods. It’s common for victims to report having body image issues which can spiral into other problems from low-self esteem to anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphic disorder.
Looking for a hero
On a subconscious level, survivors may yearn for that person who can swoop in and put an end to their suffering. This usually happens on a romantic level as they seek new relationships. Unfortunately, this hero searching can often lead to getting attached to another person who will exploit their fragility and subsequent abuse often follows.
Feeling Completely Alone
After enduring ongoing trauma, and coping with the after effects, it makes sense that a survivor could feel like no one on the planet can relate. When all these symptoms are bearing down on the survivor, it can seem like they are in a one-of-a-kind situation and are completely alone. This is one reason DBT skills are taught in a group setting, so that survivors can see others with similar experiences who are learning along with them. Therapy and group therapy are powerful tools that any person can use to change their perception and reconnect to healthy relationships.
Extreme Sadness and Suicidal Thoughts
Mood disorders are one of the most common effects from trauma. Without hope that there is an end to their suffering, Complex PTSD victims become extremely depressed and are at a high risk for having suicidal thoughts, ideation and behavior.
C-PTSD often comes along with chronic invalidation throughout childhood. This sometimes comes from misattunement between the parent and the child. Some children are much more emotional than their parents, and their parents perceive them as dramatic or manipulative. These kind of responses are invalidating to a child, and the child then learns to begin invalidating themselves. Chronic invalidation makes it hard to trust your own experiences or believe and understand your emotional inner world.
What can I do if I believe I am suffering from Complex PTSD?
Your first step is to reach out to a therapist so you no longer have to feel alone in your recovery. Although it may take longer than someone who is suffering from Uncomplicated PTSD, there is still plenty of hope for you. With the help of a safe other, you can begin to cope in healthier ways regarding your current situation while building strength and resilience toward a brighter future.