Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) can create lasting damage to your emotional and physical well being. Trauma is an event which frightens us so much that we fear death or grave injury. Traumatic experience overwhelms our capacity to integrate and to cope. When the term complex trauma is used, it usually refers to conditions, or relationships that repeatedly terrify and overwhelm us.
Complex Trauma Differs From PTSD
CPTSD usually stems from painful, and frightening events that are repeated or prolonged. It’s also often relational trauma, and it’s this fact which sets it apart from PTSD. Because of this, it often affects people in a different way.
For example, consider “Bill” (not his real name). He is a client of mine who is seeing me for PTSD treatment. Years ago, Bill survived a natural disaster. Sadly, he suffers with trauma symptoms which are triggered by certain very specific sights and sounds. But, none of his triggers are activated by people or relationships. While PTSD symptoms affect his family relationships, he fundamentally feels safe and good around other people. His deep bonds feel safe and stable, and his relationships don’t trigger his trauma symptoms.
C-PTSD Often Appears Alongside Physical Health Problems
Conditions we experience as infants, children adult can cause CPTSD. But very often, complex trauma stems from unresolved childhood trauma. This type of trauma negatively impacts health and well-being in adulthood. At least 1 in 7 children suffer from abuse and neglect. These children not only suffer the immediate effects of such maltreatment, but their emotional and physical health is shaped for years to come. The full neurobiological impacts often don’t become apparent until years later.
In fact, the CDC and Kaiser conducted a study of 17,ooo patients. It’s called “The ACE Study”. Here are just a few of the findings:
- Child maltreatment seems to increase a host of physical health problems
- Children who are victims of maltreatment suffer from increased rates of health problems which range from increased vision problems, to increased rates of diseased like COPD, diabetes and cancer
- Mental health problems increase. Specifically anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidality
- These children show worse educational outcomes
But here is the good news- we can heal from the effects of early trauma.
It Is Possible To Heal From Complex Trauma
Most of the clients that I have worked with in my practice have survived childhood trauma. The vast majority of them recovered. Research shows that with the right kind of therapy support, even severe early life trauma can be resolved. And effective treatment is a gift that keeps on giving. When an adult has successfully resolved their childhood trauma, the benefits also accrue to generations to come.
A trauma-informed approach minimises the potential for upsetting and destabilising interactions. It rests on awareness of the impacts of trauma, and recognises that many problems survivors face are trauma related. A therapist who treats complex trauma understands the links between `past’ traumatic experience and current challenges of everyday life
Specialized Complex Trauma Therapy Is Essential
Sadly more than a few times I’ve worked with clients who had fruitless experiences in “regular talk therapy”. By this, I mean that they worked with someone whom they may have liked. But they failed to get therapeutic traction. They did not receive the benefit they sought. Or worse, the wrong type of treatment caused them to deteriorate. Most often, I have heard this from clients who worked with well meaning clinicians who inadvertently overlooked important trauma symptoms that arose in therapy.
For example, “Belinda” came to see me after working with another therapist for 9 months. That therapist encouraged her to “face what happened to her”, and began EMDR treatment. Her therapist was a generalist who did not have much experience treating trauma. She did not catch that Belinda was not ready for memory processing.
As a consequence, Belinda’s chronic anxiety got worse. Her insomnia became unbearable and she began to feel a deep hopelessness about ever recovering. Sadly, she was nowhere near being ready to process her past traumatic memories. But she identifies as a “people pleaser”. So, she downplayed her increased suffering because she feared that her therapist would growing impatient with her. The fear of displeasing a caring, sensitive and smart source of support was too great, so she suffered on until she simply couldn’t face going to therapy any more.
The above example speaks to how many of the factors of standard therapy trigger complex trauma survivors . After all, some people, especially those without trauma histories, regulartly talk about the past in therapy. And talking about the past often relieves and heals us. But not all therapists practice trauma informed care, or know enough about how trauma shapes the brain and the nervous system.
Survivors are often on “high alert”. Even minor stress can trigger out of proportion responses. When this happens, your body continues to react as if you are still in danger, and this can be explained in terms of unresolved prior traumatic experience. A good trauma therapist knows this.
Why Trauma Treatment Is A Specialty,
Not all therapy adheres to trauma treatment best practices.
The recovery process for complex trauma usually contains 3 important components. Best practice therapy for trauma usually involves a phased treatment approach. First in Phase 1, we help you build a felt sense of safety and internal stability. Next, in Phase 2 we may begin to `process’ the trauma/s that are continuing to affect you. Finally, in Phase 3 we nurture what we commonly referred to as “Post Traumatic growth. That means living a healthy balanced life.
All of this flows from the work we do in Phase 1. This is where you hone your ability to manage your thoughts and feelings. These skills are foundational to all aspects of recovery.
Basic knowledge of the brain helps the trauma recovery process. From the “top down”, the brain comprises the cortex (thinking, reflecting), limbic system (emotions and relationships) and brain stem (arousal states; “survival” responses). When we are under stress, brain stem responses dominate. This limits our ability to be calm, reflect, and respond flexibly. This can happen habitually and This is particularly true when someone has complex PTSD
So a good complex trauma therapist is generally someone who has good understanding of how our brains function. This knowledge and experience can help you recover from trauma symptoms.
If you would like to learn more about how I work with PTSD and Complex PTSD click here.