Understand Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)

Most of us have experienced traumatic and repeated distressing events. These can range from a one-time traumatic event to an ongoing traumatic event.

Example of a one-time event:

  • A serious car accident
  • A sexual assault
  • A traumatic childbirth, the loss of a baby
  • Life-threatening health issues being in intensive care

Example of the ongoing traumatic event:

  • Experiencing abuse or neglect as a child
  • Ongoing domestic violence
  • Repeatedly witnessing violence or abuse

The difference between PTSD and C-PTSD. PTSD is caused by ONE single traumatic event. C-PTSD is caused by an ONGOING traumatic event that lasts for months or years.

In my counseling practice, I see many clients who are suffering from C-PTSD. Where they are exposed to ongoing childhood trauma growing up. Consequently, they grew up as an adult being stuck in habits, reactions, and behaviors due to not having fully processed upsetting or distressing events in their lives.  

Trauma is defined as any experience or set of repetitive experiences that overwhelm a person’s system emotionally and physically. Using this analogy, if you try to pour a lot of water into a small cup, the cup would overflow all over the place. There is nothing wrong with the cup. The problem is it is not made to more than it can contain. That is what happened with trauma.

Human systems are made to handle a significant amount of distress. When a series of repetitive distressing experiences occur, these experiences are stored in our body, mind, and emotions. That’s why when we get triggered, we overreact physically and emotionally. Our cup overflows.  

Most of the time our systems do not “reset” themselves and go back to normal. The result, is hyper-aroused, living in old trauma while preparing to face current-day difficulty. All of this is automatic and not under conscious control.

Common symptoms for PTSD & C-PTSD

  • Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares
  • Avoiding people, places, or thoughts that remind of the trauma
  • Feeling distant, overwhelming by emotion
  • Easily startled

Clients with C-PTSD typically experience the full range of PTSD symptoms. However, clients with C-PTSD may also report other distressing symptoms like:

  • Long-term difficulties in maintaining a relationship
  • Difficulties managing emotions
  • Strong feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Physical symptoms – chronic pain, headaches, chest pain, and stomach aches
  • Suicidal thoughts

It is important to seek help for both PTSD and C-PTSD as soon as you recognize the symptoms. Knowing the differences between trauma disorders can help you get the help you need.

When we face difficulties in life it requires lots of compassion, comfort, understanding, and kindness. But for most of us, these difficulties have been met with indifference, blame, or ineffective attempts by others to help.

Reference: Fredrickson, K. (2015). Give yourself a break: Turning your inner critic into a compassionate friend. Revell.

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