What is C-PTSD? How can we recover from complex trauma?

“Complex trauma or C-PTSD is defined as the exposure to multiple, often interrelated forms of traumatic experiences and the difficulties that arise as a result of adapting to or surviving these experiences. These adverse experiences typically begin in early childhood, are longstanding or recurrent and are inflicted by others.”


Definition of complex trauma leading to C-PTSD

Complex trauma is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) known as C-PTSD. It is normally diagnosed when a sequence of traumatic events happens over a period of time, especially when the perpetrator was someone close to us, such as a parent or caregiver. C-PTSD can be caused by abuse or neglect or both.

When home isn’t safe

Children need to feel safe to thrive. The home environment needs to be stable so they can grow and develop. A previous blog talks about adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, and how these experiences can change the way we relate to the world.

The trouble is that when we grow up in a dysfunctional or abusive environment, we don’t know it’s abuse at the time. It’s our normal. I remember telling a friend, who happened to be a social worker, about some things that happened in our house as I was growing up. She said, “You know that’s abuse, right?” I nearly fell over! I had no idea that the stuff that had happened was abuse, it was just my crazy family. Everyone’s family has crazy, doesn’t it? Apparently not.

Why now?

C-PTSD tends to show up as we get older. Many people ask, why now, why not back then when it was all so hard? When dysfunction is the norm, we adapt. We learn survival techniques that literally keep us alive. We might stay quiet, keep the peace, and get really good at people-pleasing. Those techniques helped us then but may not serve us well now. It is not a sudden appearance of C-PTSD it is just that our survival techniques are no longer needed and have become uncomfortable.

Symptoms of C-PTSD

There are many lists of symptoms for C-PTSD and they all vary a bit, they can include the following:

  • losing memories of trauma or reliving them
  • emotional flashbacks
  • toxic shame
  • vicious inner critic
  • passive suicidality
  • social anxiety
  • self-abandonment
  • feelings of loneliness and abandonment 
  • fragile self-esteem
  • dissociation
  • difficulty regulating emotions that often manifest as rage
  • depression
  • suicidal thoughts or actions
  • sudden mood swings
  • feeling detached from oneself
  • feeling different from others
  • feeling ashamed
  • feeling guilty
  • difficulty maintaining relationships
  • difficulty trusting others
  • seeking out or becoming a rescuer
  • feeling afraid for no apparent reason
  • having a feeling of always being on the alert
  • becoming obsessed with revenge on the perpetrator
  • feeling a loss of spiritual attachment and either ignoring or depending upon religion for self-worth 

Emotional flashbacks in C-PTSD

Emotional flashbacks are feeling flashbacks rather than the visual flashbacks we might associate with PTSD. These feelings can be overwhelming and last as little as a few moments or may last weeks. We are once again feeling like that abused or abandoned child. Pete Walker talks about them really well in his book, Complex PTSD From Surviving to Thriving

Toxic shame

If you hear something often enough, you start to believe. If our parents constantly tell us we are ugly, stupid, clumsy or flawed we start to believe it. As children, we internalise what the grown-ups say as complete truth. Toxic shame can also be created by parental neglect or rejection. It is a real case of, “Well if my parents don’t love me, I must be awful.” These internalised beliefs follow us into adulthood. We might know logically that we are not stupid or ugly but still, that core belief remains. 

Vicious inner critic

Most of us have an inner critic. That little voice that says you can’t do this or that, you are rubbish at sport so don’t try and so on. In survivors of C-PTSD the inner critic is a viscous nasty thing. It doesn’t just tell us that we are bad at doing things, it tells us that we ARE bad. That we are fundamentally flawed and unlovable. We are loveless not because of our mistakes, but because of who we are. 

Ways to recover from C-PTSD

  • Get some therapy! – counselling with an experienced therapist is incredibly helpful. Talk to someone who understands trauma and the need for safety. You can’t start to heal until you feel safe.
  • Learn self-regulation – survivors often experience roller-coaster emotions. This can include rage, guilt, sadness and a whole host of others. Learn ways to calm yourself. 
  • Reclaim control – recognise that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you! There is nothing to feel shameful about. This might take time, and you might need some help with it.
  • Become aware of your triggers – work out what triggers you. Not so you can avoid them but so that you can pull them into awareness and not get hijacked by them.
  • Don’t isolate – shame and fear likes to keep us isolated. Talk to friends, confide in someone you trust. 

Some benefits of working with a trauma focused therapist

Working with a trauma-focused therapist can be extremely helpful if you believe your are suffering from C-PTSD. Some of the benefits include:

  • reduced anxiety
  • a sense of clarity about what happened
  • turning the volume down on the inner critic
  • better relationships 
  • establishing healthy boundaries
  • increased sense of well-being

If you recognise yourself in this blog and you would like to address any issues it may have brought up for you please contact me via my profile here.

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

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Haslemere, GU27
Written by Fiona Hewkin, BA (hons), MBACP
Haslemere, GU27

Fiona Hewkin is Humanistic trained counsellor with further training in Trauma Focused Therapy. She has a passion for helping people to thrive after challenging childhoods and trauma.

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