Learn about complex trauma, how it is diagnosed, and the best treatment options in this informative article.
Trauma is a lasting emotional response related to experiencing a distressing event. Some events or experiences that may result in trauma include abuse, neglect, serious injury, combat, and the loss of a loved one. Experiencing trauma often leads to feelings of helplessness, shame, fear, and powerlessness.
There are various types of trauma depending on the number of incidents, how often it occurred, and how it was experienced. For example, vicarious trauma occurs when a person witnesses someone else’s trauma. Acute trauma develops through one traumatic event, and chronic trauma develops through repeated and prolonged trauma.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD or c-PTSD) is a mental health disorder that involves the symptoms of PTSD and complex trauma. Both c-PTSD and PTSD involve exposure to a traumatic event that is distressing enough to impact one’s functioning. But, where PTSD is generally related to a single event, c-PTSD is related to the trauma brought about by long-term exposure to trauma.
Complex PTSD includes many symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, detachment, and environmental triggers. The primary difference that sets them apart is disturbances in self-worth, which stems from complex trauma. Several studies suggest that prolonged trauma presents different symptoms. This is due to how the brain develops and adapts to coping with repeated exposure to traumatic incidents. Personality changes and dysregulation of emotional processing are key factors of complex trauma.2
Additionally, the nature of complex trauma generally stems from personal relationships. This social form of trauma causes disturbances in self-organization (DSO), significantly affecting identity and relational capacities.3
Complex trauma and c-PTSD can be easy to misdiagnose, as it shares many symptoms with other mental health disorders. The understanding of complex trauma is also new, increasing the likelihood of overlooking its symptoms. Two of the most common disorders that complex trauma gets mistaken for are:
Substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder often occur together. About 40% of people who experience PTSD also struggle with addiction.7
Misusing drugs and alcohol to suppress unwanted emotions can create a cycle. Substance use can worsen PTSD symptoms, while the symptoms can influence substance use. This can lead to developing a dependency on the drug, which can progress to a substance use disorder.