Understanding the roots of PTSD and C-PTSD

Both PTSD and C-PTSD arise from the experience of something deeply traumatic – a rupture in the fabric of one's reality that shatters illusions of safety and security. Whether stemming from combat exposure, interpersonal violence, natural disasters, or childhood abuse, trauma leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche, disrupting one's sense of self and the world.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) typically arises in response to a single, discrete traumatic event – a moment of profound terror or helplessness that leaves an enduring mark on the individual's consciousness. Symptoms of PTSD may include intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and avoidance of trauma-related stimuli.

In contrast, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is born from the crucible of prolonged or repeated trauma – what clinicians refer to as 'complex trauma'. This form of trauma unfolds over months, years, or even decades, encompassing a range of adverse experiences such as childhood abuse, domestic violence, or captivity. C-PTSD is characterised by a constellation of symptoms that extend beyond those of traditional PTSD, reflecting the pervasive and enduring nature of the trauma.

The tapestry of symptoms: Contrasting PTSD and C-PTSD

While PTSD and C-PTSD share commonalities in their symptomatology, there are notable distinctions that differentiate the two disorders:

Nature of trauma

PTSD typically arises in response to a single traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or sexual assault. In contrast, C-PTSD stems from prolonged, interpersonal trauma, often occurring in the context of ongoing abuse, neglect, or captivity.

Symptom duration and complexity

While PTSD symptoms may fluctuate over time, they are often triggered by reminders of the traumatic event and may resolve with appropriate treatment. In contrast, C-PTSD symptoms are more pervasive and enduring, reflecting the cumulative impact of chronic trauma on the individual's psyche and sense of self.

Dissociative symptoms

Individuals with C-PTSD may experience dissociative symptoms, such as depersonalisation or derealisation, as a means of coping with overwhelming emotions or sensations. These dissociative experiences serve as a form of psychological detachment from the trauma and may manifest as a sense of being disconnected from oneself or the surrounding environment.

Interpersonal difficulties

C-PTSD often gives rise to profound challenges in interpersonal relationships, stemming from early attachment disruptions or experiences of betrayal and exploitation. Individuals may struggle with trust, intimacy, and emotional regulation, leading to patterns of social withdrawal or relational conflict.

Emotional dysregulation

Both PTSD and C-PTSD are associated with heightened emotional arousal and reactivity, but individuals with C-PTSD may experience more pronounced difficulties in emotion regulation. This may manifest as intense mood swings, emotional outbursts, or difficulty in modulating distressing emotions.

Sense of self

C-PTSD deeply affects one's sense of self and identity, eroding self-esteem, and self-worth. Individuals may experience profound feelings of shame, guilt, or worthlessness, internalising the negative beliefs and messages instilled by their abusers or perpetrators.

Implications for treatment: Navigating the pathways to healing

Effective treatment of PTSD and C-PTSD requires a comprehensive and trauma-informed approach, tailored to the unique needs and experiences of the individual. While both disorders benefit from evidence-based interventions such as trauma-focused therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), there are specific considerations for addressing the complexities of C-PTSD:

Stabilisation and safety

In cases of C-PTSD, establishing a sense of safety and stability is paramount before delving into trauma processing work. Therapeutic interventions may focus initially on building coping skills, enhancing emotion regulation, and fostering a supportive therapeutic alliance.

Attachment repair

Given the profound impact of early attachment disruptions on the development of C-PTSD, therapy often involves addressing attachment-related wounds and repairing interpersonal trust. Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) and attachment-based interventions can help individuals develop healthier relationship patterns and cultivate secure attachments.

Complex trauma processing

Trauma processing in C-PTSD may require a phased approach, gradually addressing different aspects of the individual's traumatic history while ensuring adequate emotional regulation and containment. Techniques such as narrative exposure therapy (NET) and sensorimotor psychotherapy can help individuals integrate fragmented memories and reclaim a sense of agency over their lives.

Cultural sensitivity

Recognising the intersectionality of trauma and cultural identity is essential in working with individuals from diverse backgrounds. Culturally competent therapy approaches, informed by an understanding of cultural values, beliefs, and norms, can enhance the effectiveness of treatment and promote cultural humility and responsiveness.

Holistic healing

Healing from C-PTSD often requires a holistic approach that addresses the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit. Integrative interventions such as mindfulness practices, yoga, expressive arts therapy, and somatic experiencing can complement traditional psychotherapy approaches, fostering healing on multiple levels.

Illuminating the path forward

In conclusion, PTSD and C-PTSD represent distinct yet interconnected manifestations of trauma, reflecting the diverse ways in which individuals respond to adversity and distress. While PTSD arises from discrete traumatic events, C-PTSD emerges from the crucible of prolonged, interpersonal trauma, leaving enduring scars on the psyche and soul.

By understanding the nuances of PTSD and C-PTSD, clinicians and mental health professionals can provide more nuanced and effective interventions, tailored to the unique needs and experiences of those impacted by trauma. Through trauma-informed care, compassionate support, and evidence-based interventions, individuals can embark on a journey of healing and reclaim their innate capacity for resilience, growth, and transformation in the aftermath of trauma.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3
Written by Hope Therapy & Counselling Services, Offering Counselling, CBT, Hypnotherapy, EMDR & Mindfulness.
Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Ian Stockbridge is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Counselling Services. 

As an experienced Counsellor, Ian recognised a huge societal need for therapeutic services that were often not being met. As such the 'Hope Agency' was born and its counselling team now offers counselling and therapeutic support throughout the UK.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals