What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

what is complex post-traumatic stress disorder

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (often abbreviated to C-PTSD or CPTSD) is a psychological condition that arises as a result of chronic traumatization experienced over a span of months or, more often, years or even decades. Many different forms of abuse can lead to C-PTSD, including emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, domestic violence, living in a war zone, being held captive, human trafficking or other organized forms of abuse, and more. Although C-PTSD can develop in adults under exceptional circumstances, it is most commonly seen among individuals who experienced prolonged trauma during childhood.

It’s normal for a person who has been trapped in an abusive or oppressive situation over which they had little or no control to carry with them an intense sense of dread even after the situation has been resolved. They know that it is possible for bad things to happen since they have seen firsthand how bad life can get and are aware that bad things can potentially happen to them again. They often fear that if they’re unfortunate enough to experience such bad things again, the results might be worse for them than before. 

Symptoms of C-PTSD

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder consists of many of the same traditional symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder along with some additional symptoms often specific to the type of trauma an individual has experienced. Symptoms usually fall into one of three categories:

Re-experiencing symptoms. 

It is probably no surprise that flashbacks, nightmares, and reliving trauma are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD. Strong emotions are often triggered when memories of trauma are recalled. In such cases, the person may find themselves re-experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells from the traumatic event and lose contact with their present reality to some degree.

Sense-of-threat symptoms. 

It is common for those suffering from C-PTSD to feel that they need to be constantly on guard. They may be overly hypervigilant (intensely aware of their surroundings), jumpy, and susceptible to being startled easily. Additionally, certain sounds, smells, and other sensations can trigger feelings of panic or anxiety.

Avoidance symptoms. 

Trauma survivors spend much of their time avoiding triggers, which can include people, places, or situations that evoke memories of the trauma they endured. Some people may use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication to cope with these symptoms, especially in cases where triggers can’t easily be avoided.

Additional symptoms can include:

  • persistent feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
  • difficulty controlling emotions
  • an overwhelming sense of worthlessness or being permanently damaged
  • feeling like no one is able to understand what happened to you
  • dissociative symptoms such as depersonalization or derealisation
  • feelings of anger or distrust towards the world

Treating C-PTSD

Treating complex post-traumatic stress disorder can be complicated. There are few existing guidelines specifically for treating people with C-PTSD, and traditional methods of treating regular PTSD are often met with limited success though they can be helpful. People with C-PTSD typically need more intensive, long-term treatment models to support rehabilitation. 

Current treatment methods usually include some combination of medication for depression and anxiety, talk therapy to help process trauma, exposure therapy to help confront fears, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy to address thought patterns and negative associations.

Life Adjustment Team Can Help

Outpatient treatment programs like LAT’s assertive community treatment model of care are an immeasurably valuable resource for people living with C-PTSD and their families. The comprehensive training and education, state-of-the-art rehabilitation techniques, and in-home family support offered by our Team provide a robust support network to lessen the load on our clients and their families to build a pathway to progress for those living with a diagnosis. 

At LAT, we’re dedicated to helping every client achieve the highest level of functioning and well-being possible. We bring over 40 years of clinical experience and industry-best, results-proven treatment methods to you, where you are, to help you achieve your goals and realize your highest potential. Our Team also provides assistance through care coordination to connect you or your loved one with local services to meet your transportation needs, improve living situations, and solve problems in your life. Schedule a meeting with our Clinical Team today to get started on your journey to “Learning To Live Well!”

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The Life Adjustment Team provides effective in-home structure and support systems that empower patients to live stable, active and productive lives using evidence-based treatment concepts for successful rehabilitation and recovery.

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