Unpacking the Baggage: Relational Trauma vs. C-PTSD

The word trauma is being used a lot over the last few years. And what I’ve seen as a therapist, is that people mean very different things when they use terms like “relational trauma” and “Complex PTSD”. The other day, a client asked me this question, and I thought it might be helpful to talk about it in a video.

Trauma and it’s effects can be a confusing. We hear a lot about PTSD, but what about C-PTSD, and this vague and mysterious thing called “relational trauma”? Are they the same, different sides of the same coin, or are they more like distant cousins?

Understanding the Difference:

Imagine trauma as a tangled mess of yarn. Relational trauma is the event, events, or conditions that create that knot . When a relationship is traumatizing there are often broken bonds and unmet fundamental physical and psychological needs. In close relationships, especially relationships that occur early in life, relational trauma can stem from neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or even just a constant sense of emotional unavailability.

Relational trauma comes from relationships that trigger our survival brain. That’s the part of our brain that puts our bodies and minds into fight, flight, freeze or submit responses. In essense, relational trauma conditions our nervous systems by placing us in situations where we feel a repeated felt sense of danger: we feel alone as if we are in basic survival mode

C-PTSD, on the other hand, is the messy aftermath that is that tangled yarn. It’s the collection of symptoms that can develop after prolonged exposure to relational trauma (or other kinds of trauma too). Think flashbacks, nightmares, emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and difficulty trusting other people.


Key Differences:

Experience vs. Outcome: Relational trauma is the what, it’s the lived experience.

C-PTSD is the how, the way that experience has impacted us.

Specificity: Relational trauma often stems from relationship issues, while C-PTSD can have broader origins. For example, I’ve worked with clients who have C-PTSD symptoms from repeated medical trauma, growing up in high threat environments like a war zone, or from being in multiple life threatening natural disasters and accidents.

While you could argue that most of those situations I’ve listed have a relational component, these clients were not really dealing with the direct impact of having an ongoing close relationship with someone who was abusing, neglecting or betraying them.


Universality: Not everyone who experiences relational trauma develops C-PTSD, and vice versa.

Healing the Hurt:

The good news is that both the effects of relational trauma and C-PTSD are treatable. Healing relational trauma involve rebuilding trust, setting healthy boundaries, and learning to nurture supportive relationships. C-PTSD usually requires additional support, like working with trauma specialist in therapy and using specific trauma-informed approaches.


You’re not alone. Millions grapple with the effects of trauma.
Understanding the difference between relational trauma and C-PTSD is crucial for finding the right healing path.
There is hope. With the right tools and support, you can untangle the mess and build a fulfilling life. I’ve seen it done many times

Reach out for help:

Healing is a journey. It takes commitment. So be kind to yourself, and take things one step at a time. You’ve got this.

I hope this post helped clarify the difference between relational trauma and C-PTSD. Remember, knowledge is power, and understanding your experiences is the first step towards healing. If you want to learn more about trauma, I invite you to spend some time with my website, I’ve post a wealth of information about trauma related topics and treatment here.