Complex PTSD

Have you heard of Complex PTSD? With thanks to recent campaigns to increase mental health awareness, most people are familiar with PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – which can occur after experiencing a single traumatic event.

However, if a trauma – such as violence, emotional neglect or abuse – is experienced as ongoing, or an individual feels trapped in a traumatic situation, Complex PTSD can develop.

People are likely to struggle more 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


In addition to experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD – such as nightmares, insomnia and a reluctance to revisit traumatic places – individuals with Complex PTSD are likely to experience:

  • difficulty controlling emotions
  • intense feelings of shame & guilt
  • feeling very distrustful of the world
  • constant feelings of emptiness, loneliness or hopelessness
  • feeling permanently damaged or worthless
  • feeling completely different to everyone else
  • feeling nobody can understand what happened to you
  • avoiding, cutting yourself off or having problems with family & friends
  • recurring problems with relationships
  • losing attention & concentration through disassociation such as feeling unreal or in surreal surroundings
  • physical symptoms including headaches, dizziness, chest pains, stomach aches, back ache
  • destructive or risky behaviour including self-harmalcohol misuse or drug abuse, eating disorders, unsafe sex
  • underlying suicidal feelings

Brain Injury vs. Mental Illness/Disorder

Many complex trauma specialists and advocates view Complex PTSD as a brain injury, rather than a mental illness or disorder.

Because of the impact of complex trauma on a developing brain, especially in relation to the fight/flight/freeze response system, these changes can be picked up in MRI brain scans.

Research has clearly showed that the brains of people with Complex PTSD are markedly different from a neurotypical brain. In particular, the area responsible for emotional control – the amygdala, a very primal part of our brain – are much more alert in a Complex PTSD brain when shown certain emotionally activating stimulus.

The good news is that neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to continuously change throughout an individual’s life – means that brains are capable of adapting to a post-trauma life, with the right therapy.

This is a trauma-informed approach which treats survivors compassionately.