As a society, we are making progress in understanding the effects of PTSD and ways to internally heal from experiencing traumatic events. However, we know a lot less about how trauma compounds over time and the effect it has on relationships. Some psychologists propose that there is a difference between the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD, which suggests that a different treatment approach may be necessary for individuals who have experienced complex trauma.
What is Complex Trauma?
It is important to note that complex trauma, as compared to simple trauma, does not mean that the type of event one experienced was more distressing or shocking. In fact, Complex-PTSD is closely related to the events and symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. The main difference is that PTSD is generally related to a single event or series of events within a short period of time, while complex PTSD is related to a series of events that repeatedly occurred over an extended period of time. PTSD is more likely to be associated with flashbacks of a particular event, vulnerability to specific triggers, or difficulty coping with a major life transition, while symptoms of Complex PTSD are more pervasive and can be generalized to any number of stressful situations. Individuals who have experienced complex trauma are more likely to live in a constant state of anxiety or, conversely, may have trouble distinguishing red flags based on normalizing their experiences.
Some examples of causes of complex trauma may stem from:
- Experiencing childhood neglect
- Experiencing physical or sexual abuse early in life
- Frequent changes of caregivers, such as while in the foster care system or being adopted
- Being targeted by multiple perpetrators, such as bullying or recurring sexual assault
How Are the Symptoms Different From PTSD?
In addition to the standard symptoms of PTSD, an individual with complex PTSD may also experience:
- A persistently negative self-view. They are more likely to internalize that trauma was their fault and feel ashamed to discuss details. It is harder for them to identify their strengths based on a lack of positive core memories.
- Fixed negative worldview. Based on repeated trauma, they are more likely to believe they have evidence that the world is a negative place or to have lost faith in previously held beliefs.
- Detachment from trauma. It is not uncommon for a person to dissociate from their emotions and physical sensations. Some may lose the memory of the events or chunks of their lives in order to separate themselves from what happened and focus on survival.
- Preoccupation with people involved in the trauma. While one of the features of PTSD is a fixation on the event itself, people with complex trauma are more likely to focus on the people involved and are more likely to be attached to their abusers, witnesses, or others who experienced the same thing by the same person.
How Does Complex Trauma Affect Relationships with Others?
People with C-PTSD are more likely to struggle with maintaining a support system due to difficulties trusting others and interacting with others. As a result, they are at an increased risk of re-experiencing relational trauma throughout their lifetime based on poor boundaries and security in relationships.
They are also more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) based on inconsistencies in relationships. Key differences include a fear of abandonment that is specific to BPD and a more stable sense of self-identity seen in C-PTSD that is not seen as consistently with BPD.
While teenagers who have experienced complex trauma are more likely to avoid relationships and push away social support, developing healthy relationships is one of the primary ways they can begin to change their worldview and sense of self. Relationship-based therapy may be more effective for teens with C-PTSD than reprocessing traumatic events, especially due to memory issues and the length of their trauma histories.
Relationship-based therapy takes a client-centered approach to talking about emotions and behaviors in order to validate one’s internal experience and fearful worldview. Rather than focusing on past events, therapists work with teens to help them analyze their current relationships and patterns/dynamics that are playing out. From there, they can begin to discuss whether these patterns are helpful or hurtful when it comes to building trust and security in relationships and suggest alternatives. The goal of relationship-based therapy is to help individuals become less avoidant of relationships and practice setting boundaries based on their personal wants and needs.
Solstice East Can Help
Solstice East is a residential treatment center for young women ages 14-18 who are reclaiming their sense of self after experiencing traumatic events, depression, and addictive behaviors. We help young women heal from emotional pain by reintegrating healthy habits into their lives. Students learn to build healthy relationships, cope with emotions, and effectively communicate with others. Through adventure activities and creative expression, we encourage girls to explore their passions and strengths and empower them to make healthy choices.
For more information about how we help girls cope with trauma, call 828-484-9946.