Causes of Complex Trauma

Complex trauma becomes a problem when an indivdiual experiences prolonged exposure to interpersonal trauma. In reality, this means feeling like you are stuck in a never-ending overwhelming 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 include:

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

More common traumatic experiences we overlook include:

  • Witnessing our parents upset or angry often as young children
  • Our parents separating, or being emotionally immature
  • Siblings having to live apart
  • Being sent to boarding school

People are more likely to struggle with complex trauma 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

Intergenerational Trauma

We can also experience trauma:

  • Whilst we are in our mother’s womb
  • During birth (our own, or our child’s)
  • Shortly after birth (our own, or our child’s)

Overwhelming surges of hormones, often from stress our mothers are experiencing, can be passed to us in these moments. They flood our developing bodies with huge amounts of ‘fight or flight’ surges. It can affect attachment and development, priming the nervous system for similar distressing responses to overwhelming circumstances in our lives.

There’s a lot of evidence around epigenetics which highlights intergenerational trauma. Trauma experienced by our ancestors can also be passed to us in their DNA. If we experience similar stressors in our lives, those genes also become activated for us, and we respond as if responding to our ancestors’ distress too. We are the ones who want to break these intergenerational cycles in our own families.

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. Anything that feels overwhelming to an individual – creating feelings of fear and anxiety – could be a traumatic experience which turns into a problem. A 12-year-old girl going for dinner with an abusive uncle could be just as traumatic as her 23-year-old cousin’s experiences of war. The dinner table may not look like a battlefield for everyone sat around it, but it is no less a war-zone to the girl.

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. These types of experiences are often 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, or during birth, or perhaps their mother sadly experienced something traumatic whilst they were in their womb. The younger a person 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.

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, it’s almost impossible to receive the help we need. That’s why I’ve set up this website, to raise awareness of the trauma-informed approaches which can make a positive difference to our lives.