Complex PTSD: What Is It and What Causes It?

 When we think of PTSD, we often associate it with a single, life-altering event: a tragic accident, a violent encounter with a criminal, or a natural disaster. Complex PTSD, sometimes called C-PTSD, occurs in response to repeated exposure to abuse or trauma. The cumulative effect of that trauma builds up, layer by layer, creating a maze of conflicting emotions and beliefs.

  In today’s article, we’re going to talk about what C-PTSD is, and how it’s formed.

Key Features of C-PTSD

Frequency and Duration

 Complex PTSD forms in response to frequent, repeated trauma over the course of months — or even years. Often, trauma of this sort occurs amongst people who are forced to live with or stay with their abusers over a long period of time, where the abuse is inescapable.

  Examples of such situations include:

  • Repeated physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during childhood
  • Periods of chronic neglect during childhood
  • Prolonged periods of particularly brutal bullying at school or work
  • Frequently witnessing domestic violence amongst family members
  • People who are subjected to sexual trafficking or domestic slavery

  It is critically important to recognize that trauma isn’t always accompanied by physical violence. If a person is subjected to emotional cruelty and psychological torture on a regular basis, the effects are often severe.

 Emotional Aspects

 Survivors of childhood abuse often grow up feeling like the abuse was their fault. Why not? They’re told as much by their abusers on a daily basis. The same can be said for those who suffer intense bullying at school or work. C-PTSD sufferers are told by their tormentors that the abuse is their fault: it’s a result of how they look, dress, or behave. It’s something they deserve. Even they aren’t told this explicitly, it’s impossible not to wonder “why me?” and then fill in the blanks.

 People who suffer from C-PTSD often have intense feelings of guilt and shame tied to their abuse. Because of that, they may feel  fundamentally broken. This can make it difficult to love themselves, connect with others, and advocate for their needs in relationships. Some common emotional symptoms of C-PTSD include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty Trusting Others
  • Feeling Detached
  • Persistent Sadness
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Irritability / Emotional Dysregulation
  • Feelings of Guilt and Shame

photo of a man sitting in a chair in natureC-PTSD often marks a period of abuse where the victim feels powerless and has little control over their situation.

Physical Impacts

  What we often don’t realize about trauma is that there is a physiological component to it as well. In traumatic environments — our bodies adapt to survive. Think of your body as a machine. When our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, our body kicks into high gear and pumps out stress hormones to help see us through. When your systems are running in overdrive day in and day out, it takes a heavy toll. As a result, repeated traumas often cause physical symptoms.

 Some of the more common physical symptoms of C-PTSD include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Fluctuating heart rate
  • Dizziness and fainting spells
  • Eating disorders

Self-Defense Mechanisms

 As humans we are marvelously adaptable — and people suffering from C-PTSD are no exception. You should understand that you often develop self-defense mechanisms as a response to difficult times in your life. Hypervigilance naturally follows when the people supposed to protect you betray you. Similarly, you can view depression as your body’s method of hiding from emotional pain.

 Recovering from Complex PTSD requires learning the origins of these behaviors so you can manage and eventually release them.

Professional Support

 You may feel like you’re broken beyond repair if you’re suffering from Complex PTSD. It’s not true. Just as our bodies adapt to trauma, we can heal that damage with love and self-care. You’re not alone. Reach out today so that we can explore how you can build a new perspective on not just life, but yourself in trauma therapy.