Is Complex Trauma Considered PTSD?
What Is Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma refers to exposure to multiple and/or prolonged traumatic events or experiences, often beginning in childhood or adolescence and continuing into adulthood. Unlike single-incident trauma, such as a car accident, one-time episode of violence, or natural disaster, complex trauma can have a pervasive and lasting impact on an individual’s development and have a profound impact on their sense of self, relationships, and ability to cope with stress.
What Causes Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma typically involves exposure to multiple and/or prolonged traumatic events or experiences. The following are some of the most common causes of complex trauma:
- Childhood abuse and neglect
- Intergenerational trauma
- War and political violence
- Chronic medical conditions
- Natural disasters
Symptoms of Complex Trauma
The symptoms of complex trauma can vary widely depending on an individual’s experiences, coping mechanisms, and resilience. However, some common symptoms of complex trauma include:
- Emotional dysregulation: Individuals with complex trauma may have difficulty regulating their emotions, sometimes experiencing intense and fluctuating emotions that can be difficult to control.
- Dissociation: Dissociation is a common coping mechanism for people who have experienced trauma, which involves a disconnection from thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- Hyperarousal: Individuals with complex trauma may be easily triggered by reminders of traumatic events, leading to hypervigilance and a heightened sense of threat.
- Relationship difficulties: Complex trauma can interfere with an individual’s ability to form healthy relationships, leading to challenges with trust, intimacy, and boundaries.
- Negative self-perception: People with complex trauma may struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness, often stemming from experiences of abuse or neglect.
- Physical symptoms: Complex trauma can also manifest in physical symptoms, such as chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, or other health issues.
- Self-harm: In some cases, people with complex trauma may engage in self-harming behaviors as a way of coping with emotional pain.
Impact of Complex Trauma
The effects of complex trauma can be severe and long-lasting, resulting in changes in the brain, emotions, behavior, and overall mental health. Impacts of complex trauma may include struggles with identity, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, negative self-esteem, and physiological issues such as chronic pain, headaches, and fatigue.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition that can last for months or even years. It causes traumatic events in a person’s past to have a continuing impact on their current mental health.
What Causes PTSD?
PTSD can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event that threatens the safety, well-being, or life of oneself or others. Traumatic events can include physical or sexual assault, military combat, natural disasters, serious accidents, or any other situation that involves the threat of death, injury, or harm.
Symptoms of PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD vary per individual but typically include the following:
- Intrusive thoughts: These are unwanted and distressing memories, flashbacks, and nightmares related to the traumatic event.
- Avoidance: People with PTSD may avoid places, activities, or people that remind them of the traumatic event.
- Hyperarousal: This involves feeling on edge, being easily startled, experiencing irritability, and having trouble sleeping. People with PTSD may feel like they are constantly in danger, even when there is no real threat.
- Changes in mood and cognition: These can include negative changes in beliefs or attitudes about oneself, others, or the world, feeling detached from others, feelings of guilt or shame, and loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.
Impact of PTSD
Differences Between Complex Trauma and PTSD
PTSD is typically associated with a single traumatic event, whereas complex trauma refers to exposure to multiple and/or prolonged traumatic events or experiences. Both PTSD and complex trauma can have serious and lasting impacts on individuals, but there are some significant differences between the two.
Complex trauma typically has its roots in ongoing exposure to traumatic experiences over a period of time, such as a pattern of childhood abuse and/or neglect in the home environment. Situations that may create PTSD instead of complex trauma include the following:
- Sexual abuse
- Physical violence
- Serious injuries
- Natural disasters
- Combat or military exposure
- Witnessing or experiencing violence
- Serious medical procedures or illnesses
One of the key differences between PTSD and complex trauma is the impact on an individual’s sense of self and relationships. People with complex trauma may struggle with issues related to identity, self-worth, and attachment, which can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. They may also have more complex symptoms, such as dissociation and emotional dysregulation, which can be more difficult to treat than the symptoms of PTSD.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for PTSD or complex trauma, but there are common strategies that often provide results for each. PTSD is commonly treated with talk therapy, while complex trauma is often approached with cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
Treatment for Complex Trauma and PTSD
Treatment for complex trauma and PTSD involves a combination of approaches, including therapy, medication, and support for co-occurring mental health conditions.
Common Treatment for Trauma
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors related to trauma.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is a type of therapy that focuses on teaching individuals mindfulness skills, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR involves the use of bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, to help individuals process traumatic memories and reduce stress.
- Prolonged exposure therapy (PE): PE is a form of therapy that helps individuals gradually confront and process traumatic memories and reduce avoidance behaviors.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): CPT is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals process traumatic events by challenging and changing negative beliefs and thoughts related to trauma.
- Medications: Medications such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may also be used to manage symptoms of PTSD and complex trauma, particularly when used in conjunction with therapy.
Barriers to Treating Trauma
Common barriers to treating trauma include the following:
- Lack of access to care
- Fear or mistrust of mental health professionals
- Language and cultural barriers
Importance of Early Intervention
Early intervention is crucial in the treatment of trauma, as it can help prevent symptoms from becoming chronic and long-lasting. The longer an individual goes without treatment, the more difficult it can be to manage symptoms and achieve a full recovery. Other side effects of going without treatment include the development of additional mental health conditions, impaired functionality at work, and damage to interpersonal relationships.