Causes of Complex Trauma

Complex PTSD is caused by prolonged exposure to interpersonal trauma. In reality, this means feeling like you are stuck in a never-ending unsafe situation.

Whilst we generally think of trauma as the ‘Big T’ incidents like terrorism, war, car accidents etc. there are many other situations which can be just as traumatic for an individual. This includes interpersonal, emotional and psychological traumas.

Traumatic experiences which can lead to Complex PTSD include:

  • Emotional, psychological, sexual, physical or verbal trauma
  • Abuse, violence or neglect
  • Directly experiencing trauma
  • Witnessing trauma happening to someone else

People are more likely to struggle with Complex PTSD if:

  • Their trauma happened early in life 
  • A parent or close caregiver caused the trauma
  • Their experience of the trauma continued for a long time  
  • The person responsible for their trauma is still in contact

Trauma Is Not Relative

It’s important to point out that, more than anything, if something feels like trauma, it is traumatic for that individual. A 12-year-old girl going for dinner with an abusive uncle could be just as traumatic as her 23-year-old cousin sent to war. The dinner table may not look like a battlefield for everyone sat around it, but it is no less a war-zone for the girl than deployment was for her cousin.

Whilst society and health care professionals are becoming better at recognising single-incident PTSD (often caused by physical traumas), interpersonal abuse still needs greater recognition as a source of severe and complex trauma.

Often, people who have experienced emotional or psychological abuse or neglect can suffer the most with complex trauma. This is because complex trauma is so widely misunderstood and invalidated across society, these types of experiences are dismissed as ‘not bad enough’. This is not a valid dismissal – there is no relativity when it comes to trauma, and this repeated lack of validation can cause more harm in itself.

Roots In Childhood

Those who struggle the most with Complex PTSD are likely to have experienced a traumatic event in their very early childhood. The younger an individual is when they experience something traumatic, the more it can affect them as they grow up.

Researchers, social and health care workers are beginning to recognise the important of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as correlating to an individual’s likelihood of experiencing negative life outcomes and mental health impacts. A high number of ACEs puts an individual at risk of Complex PTSD.

Turning Into A Problem

Complex trauma can become a debilitating life-long battle if it’s not dealt with early enough. If a traumatic experience is not validated and compassionately processed, it can lead to faulty wiring in the brain, keeping the individual in a permanently heightened fight-or-flight state of alert.