What Is Complex PTSD?

woman on sofaMost people will experience at least one or two traumatic events in their lives. This could involve the unexpected loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, a frightening accident, or even an act of violence. People who live through events like this may struggle to cope with the impact of their trauma. Some will even develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is characterized by debilitating mental health symptoms that make it difficult for people to take care of domestic obligations, work, or form healthy relationships.

Yet, for other people, trauma is not confined to a couple of isolated incidents. Instead, they spend years or even decades in environments where they are subjected to repeated, ongoing trauma. This can lead to a severe form of PTSD, known as complex PTSD. Here are some potential root causes and common symptoms of complex PTSD.

Examples of Chronic, Long-Term Trauma

People with complex PTSD have endured all sorts of dangerous situations. They have been abused by their caregivers as a child or by a romantic partner in adulthood. Some develop complex PTSD after living in an area that is affected by war, conflict, or multiple natural disasters. Others grow up in unsafe neighborhoods where there is a constant threat of violence.

One does not have to have these experiences in childhood to develop complex PTSD. Living through long-term trauma in adulthood can also lead to complex PTSD.

Anxiety and Depression

Many people with complex PTSD suffer from anxiety and depression. They may feel utterly hopeless about the future and believe that even when they are physically “safe,” everything could change in an instant. People with complex PTSD may suffer from panic attacks that leave them reeling. They might feel like no one around them truly understands what they’ve been through, especially if they lived in a dangerous area or a conflict zone and have since moved to a secure, calm place.

Avoiding Reminders and Triggers

People who have complex PTSD might devote lots of time and energy to avoiding triggers that bring back memories of their trauma. They may feel that this is the only way they can live a “normal” life. But investing so much time into dodging triggers can actually get in the way of healing and moving on to a fresh path.

Intense Emotional Responses

Someone with complex PTSD may have intense emotional responses to situations that would not seem to warrant it to an outsider. They may react strongly to a minor disagreement or a minor inconvenience.

Sometimes, they might experience debilitating anxiety over performing a task that seems inconsequential. They may also be prone to catastrophic thinking and black-and-white thinking. For example, they might have a tendency to assume the worst of any situation because their previous experiences have taught them not to hold positive expectations. Otherwise, they will only be disappointed.

Difficulty Maintaining Relationships

Many people with complex PTSD have trouble fostering and sustaining healthy relationships. They might be hesitant to pursue friendships or romantic relationships because they can’t bring themselves to trust others. Even when they enter into relationships, they may push people away. Additionally, some people with complex PTSD may end up engaging in relationships with people who have suffered through the same circumstances they did. Sometimes, this can cultivate strong, understanding bonds, but it can also be hard to recover from trauma when they’re frequently reliving it.

Do you suspect that you’re suffering from symptoms of complex PTSD? Working with a compassionate therapist can make a difference. Get in touch with us to find out more about our therapy options for clients with complex PTSD.

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