Do you suffer from anger, grief, depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties with no known cause? Do you feel as though you had a good childhood with parents who loved you, and no significant trauma? Do you believe that there must be something wrong with you when you have a good life, but can’t seem to shake the difficult emotions that impair your life, work and relationships?
Or do you know that you suffered abuse or emotional neglect as a child, but feel as though your difficulties are shamefully out of proportion to your childhood circumstances?
If so, you may have complex PTSD. This may be the result of undiscovered complex trauma in childhood.
Because of recent attention being paid to the PTSD suffered by returning veterans, most of us are familiar with the concept of shock trauma and the distressing PTSD symptoms that follow.
However, in my observation, complex trauma is very much more common and very much less understood. So here’s a brief summary of it causes and effects.
Complex trauma occurs when there is a series of events spread over time in childhood, none of which would be traumatic on its own, but collectively create a significant trauma.
The most common events are bonding and attachment difficulties with one or both parents. Parents may consistently avoid any real emotional intimacy. They may be emotionally available at times, but quite unavailable at others. They may be loving at times, but unpredictably erupt into anger at others.
Less common is emotional, sexual and/or physical abuse that continues over a number of years. Please note that emotional abuse does not have to include yelling or anger – it can be as simple as a ongoing criticism of character, achievements or actions.
All of these childhood conditions create deep survival fears. Why? Because the primal fear is that if my parent is not emotionally bonded with me, he or she could simply not care, abandon me, and then I would die. Although this would not happen today, until very recently in human history it was a definite possibility. And that fear remains deeply implanted in us.
When this fear persists below the surface for a whole childhood, it is generally not obvious or conscious, and the child often seems to be getting on OK with life. However, it leaves a very deep imprint on the psyche, and the effects of this imprint usually start to manifest in adulthood.
As an adult with complex trauma you may find that you are chronically depressed, anxious or angry, with no obvious cause. You may have unexplained difficulties with work or study. Relationships may be difficult, and you may find that you both crave and fear emotional intimacy, swinging back and forth between closeness and distancing. You may be attracted to people who are emotionally unavailable or even abusive, and find it difficult to keep long term relationships, even with good people. You may be hypersensitive to light, touch or sound. You may have physical symptoms such as fatigue, allergies or autoimmune conditions.
Not knowing the cause of your symptoms, you may blame and shame yourself for them, believing that there is something wrong with you, and hesitating to seek help.
But what’s true is that you are a trauma survivor with complex PTSD. It’s not your fault, and never was.
Once that becomes clear, then it’s possible to get appropriate trauma-based therapy to start the healing process. This process usually takes time, as it cannot be hurried. However, in my life and practice I notice that with a commitment to heal, it is absolutely possible for PTSD symptoms to soften, and for life, work and relationships to become much more enjoyable and successful.
To end this very brief overview, I’d like to highly recommend a book to anyone who has or suspects they may have complex trauma. It is –
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker.
Pete Walker is a therapist with 30 years experience working with trauma survivors, and is a survivor himself. This book is a very insightful, compassionate and thorough account of complex PTSD and how to heal it.