A mental health disorder can begin much like many medical conditions do. You have a vague sense that something is not right. You do your due diligence on search engines, but it’s easier said than done to pinpoint cause and effect. From there, the issue may escalate until you ask for help. With diligence, a therapist can carefully identify the sources of the patterns that are causing distress.

This is typically how complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) gets diagnosed. As I’ve discussed before, C-PTSD differs from PTSD in that complex trauma is repetitive and ongoing. Thus, it can become “normalized” enough to make diagnosis more challenging.

What Does C-PTSD Look and Feel Like?

sad woman in bedAbout 3 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with C-PTSD, but since there’s no test to distinguish between PTSD and C-PTSD, the numbers are almost certainly higher. Therefore, an important part of grasping the difference is to explore the underlying causes.

Scenarios That Can Commonly Result in C-PTSD

  • Chronic abuse of any kind, e.g. physical, sexual, emotional, medical, etc.
  • Domestic violence
  • Incest
  • Being held captive, e.g. kidnapping, trafficking, prostitution, and more
  • Torture
  • Living or serving in a war zone
  • When a child is left to take on adult roles like caretaking
  • Neglect or abandonment, especially during childhood

Complex trauma can happen differently for everyone, but if events like those listed above have been determined to occur, the presence of C-PTSD must be considered.

Signs and Symptoms of Complex Trauma to Look For

For starters, there will be overlap with PTSD symptoms, like intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance, and hyper-vigilance. To help differentiate, however, your therapist will also begin watching for signs like:

  • Sleep disturbances like insomnia
  • Emotional regulation problems, such as angry outbursts
  • Physical symptoms like digestive issues and unexplained body aches
  • Dissociation and feeling disconnected from your body
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling as if no one understands you, and thus, they cannot be trusted
  • Either hyper-fixating on the details of your traumatic memories or forgetting such details
  • Making excuses for the people who abused you and perhaps even seeking out romantic partners who remind you of your abusers
  • A loss of meaning in your life

On that last item, what a clinician is listening for is somewhat existential. Having endured relentless suffering, a person with C-PTSD may lose faith in what they once believed. Whether this relates to spiritual faith or losing trust in humanity, it is not unusual after complex trauma.

Assessing C-PTSD: How Do You Get Diagnosed?

Your therapist is aware of the above complications and will thus engage in a thorough evaluation and assessment. It will be discerned if you display issues with emotional regulation, personal interactions, and maintaining a positive self-image. Among other things, topics like these will be parsed out:

  • How do you view yourself, and how do others view you?
  • Do you have people in your life whom you deeply trust?
  • Do you generally get along with the people in your life (including your partner)?
  • What type of reactions do you have when life feels stressful?

Gathering information like this enables a clinician to make an accurate diagnosis and to identify whether you’ve been negatively impacted by complex trauma. From there, a treatment plan will be formulated.

Treating Complex Trauma

Needless to say, each treatment plan is adapted to the specific needs of each person. But, almost always, it will be suggested that you partake in daily self-care as a complement to such treatment.

As for therapy, it might involve proven approaches like, for example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). While the specifics cannot be discussed until an assessment has been taken, rest assured that you can heal and begin thriving again. Reach out to learn more how trauma therapy can help.