Complex PTSD: how to understand and overcome relational trauma

complex PTSD
Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Complex PTSD, first coined in the 90s, generally refers to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with additional symptoms.

Complex PTSD describes a response to trauma that has been repeated over and over. It is more commonly seen in sufferers of abuse and neglect in the first 15 years of life.

The fact that the abuse is inflicted by someone who is supposed to take care of the victim separates it from simple PTSD.

The sense of being powerless to escape the situation also plays a part.

Since complex PTSD is so new and under-diagnosed, it can be hard to find help. You may have been going through your whole adult life wondering what’s wrong with you.

But it’s important to note that CPTSD is a normal response to traumatic events. There’s nothing wrong with you if you suffer the effects of complex PTSD.

There's nothing wrong with you if you suffer the effects of complex PTSD. Click To Tweet

It might help to reframe how you feel as a response to trauma rather than a disorder. Not only is this true, it will alleviate some of your misplaced shame or self-blame.

Causes of complex PTSD

If you’re struggling with complex PTSD it helps to know the causes. These include (but are not limited to):

1. Repeated and/or multiple traumas in childhood over a long period of time

2. Situations, like a family home, where escape or rescue were unlikely or impossible

3. Harm suffered at the hands of someone close to you, like a parent or other caregiver

Our normal human responses to these traumas helped us cope as children, or whenever the abuse or neglect occurred.

But, as adults, those coping mechanisms become maladaptive. They hold us back from living the full and happy lives we deserve.

Symptoms of CPTSD:

1. difficulty controlling your emotions

2. feeling like the world is a scary place

3. feeling empty or hopeless

4. feeling worthlessness

5. feeling like no one understands you

6. difficulty forming close relationships

7. disconnection or disassociation. This is a way of coping with stress and events that are too hard to handle. (For me this manifested as maladaptive daydreaming.)

8. suicidal thoughts

9. constantly feeling on high alert which can affect your sleep patterns and make you startle easily

10. loss of systems of meanings. This can refer to a loss of faith in long-held beliefs, like God. It can also refer to a sense of despair or hopelessness in the world.

Self care strategies for complex PTSD

complex PTSD

What can we do to overcome the symptoms of complex PTSD? Here are seven self care strategies to help you cope, so you can live a happier life.

1. Deep breathing to calm yourself when you feel overwhelmed by a flashback or other anxious thoughts.

2. Engage your senses with pleasant smells or tastes to ground yourself.

3. Comfort yourself with a soft blanket, listen to soothing music, or watch a nice movie.

4. Keep a diary to record when you experience flashbacks or dissociative episodes.

(I did this as part of my treatment for maladaptive daydreaming. It helps to take note of what triggers you, so you can find patterns and make sense of it all.)

5. Find support.

This could mean telling a trusted friend, pastor or counselor. Or it could lead you to a support group or online forum.

6. Take care of your health.

Eat a balanced diet and exercise for 30 minutes most days. Getting outside for your physical activity is especially helpful. Nature has proven healing effects.

7. Set boundaries.

Be kind to yourself by setting healthy boundaries with the people who have harmed you.

It’s okay to spend time by yourself while you’re recovering. Or say no to family events that make you feel unsafe.

Only you know what level of contact to uphold with your abusers, if any.

Consider releasing the desire for validation from the people who hurt you. They may never own up to what they did.

It’s within your power to forgive them anyway. Forgiveness releases you from the unhealthy bonds that bind you to them.

It’s a gift you give yourself and an essential aspect of your healing.

*Please note I’m not a licensed therapist. These views are formed from my own experience and research, and do not replace the advice of a professional.

Share this