Understanding Complex Trauma
Updated: Jun 2
What is complex trauma?
Going through a difficult time in life is a common experience for most of us; it comes with being human. We may even experience something so distressing that it effects us traumatically, like the loss of a loved one or being in a car accident. Shocking or frightening experiences can make us feel unsafe, helpless, or out of control. These types of events are usually isolated and the emotional pain is directly linked to one single event.
Complex trauma, on the other hand, refers to distressing events that are repeated over a long period of time (months or years). Often, people experience complex trauma as a child or young person where they were hurt and betrayed or didn’t feel protected or cared for. However, trauma in adulthood can sometimes be complex, too.
Examples of complex trauma:
ongoing emotional or physical abuse
sexual abuse or incest
medical abuse or trauma
chronic neglect or abandonment
exploitation or human trafficking
bullying or cyberbullying
parentification (children taking on adult roles)
living in a war zone or through genocide
How does complex trauma develop?
You may be familiar with the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can develop as a result of trauma. More recently, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) has been used to describe a response to complex trauma because of its deeper impact.
Any traumatic event activates the limbic system in the brain and sets off an alarm to either fight, flight, or freeze.
Once the threat is gone, your nervous system returns to calm and your brain returns to normal cognitive function. You may be left feeling a little on edge, but are still able to go about your day.
For people with complex trauma, the limbic system stays mostly activated in an attempt to survive ongoing danger.
Feeling on edge becomes constant and being on high alert can affect your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
Symptoms of C-PTSD:
intrusive memories about the event(s)
forgetfulness, gaps in memory
dissociation or feeling “disconnected”
being on alert, or hyperarousal
sleep disturbances or nightmares
low self-esteem, feelings of shame
difficulty managing emotions
coping with alcohol, drugs, or self-harm
difficulties with interpersonal relationships
chronic health conditions
avoiding people, places, or situations that are upsetting
How can you heal from complex trauma?
While everyone experiences it differently, people do recover from complex trauma. It’s never too late to get support, and finding what trauma-informed approach works best is key. Healing from trauma is not easy but there is hope in recovery.
The good news is, through research, effective therapies are emerging to treat complex trauma:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): exploring how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours connect so you can learn to change your actions
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): using self-compassion and mindfulness to help you accept thoughts and feelings without judgment and focus on the present
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): learning important coping skills and reprocessing traumatic events to form new and improved beliefs
Somatic therapies: body-centered therapies where you can learn how trauma has become trapped in your body and how to release it
Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT): using mindfulness, distress tolerance, and radical self-acceptance to treat trauma symptoms
Internal family systems (IFS): learning about the different parts of your personality and how to integrate them into one whole “Self” which can help to process trauma
Recovery from complex trauma takes time and commitment. Using the following simple coping tools can help along the way:
spending time in nature
finding activities that bring you joy
being creative through art, music, play
eating a balanced diet
getting consistent quality sleep
staying connected to loved ones
Remember, you don’t have to deal with complex trauma alone and recovery is possible. It just takes one step to start on your healing journey.