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-harm, alcohol 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.