Everything You Need to Know About Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) can be a heavy weight to carry on your shoulders. It may feel like a barrier between you and the world. Battling a plethora of symptoms, people with C-PTSD deal with an invisible disability that not many others understand. Thankfully, now with the help of the top mental health treatment centers and various studies conducted by leading psychologists, we know more about C-PTSD than ever before, helping those with C-PTSD get the support they need.

1. What is Complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD
Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) can be really a heavyweight to carry on your shoulders. It may feel like an interruption or a barrier between you and the world.

C-PTSD, like traditional PTSD, is caused by traumatic events. However, C-PTSD typically involves repeated exposure to prolonged distress or ongoing trauma. In contrast, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is typically caused by one or more distinct distressing events. Both disorders can cause similar symptoms, however, they can be experienced differently from each other. These symptoms can include:

Consistent feelings of guilt & shame
● Emotional dysregulation
● Strong distrust of others
● Emotional flashbacks
● Intense hypervigilance
● Dissociative symptoms like depersonalization & derealization
● Difficulty with concentration and focus
● Headaches, chest pains, stomach aches, & dizziness
● Isolation from friends and family
● Difficulty sustaining relationships
● Self-destructive behavior – self-harm, alcohol abuse, drug abuse
● Suicidal ideation

Symptoms can vary from each individual. In many cases, individuals with C-PTSD also struggle with less obvious symptoms, such as perpetually searching for someone to “rescue” them. This can lead individuals to pursue toxic relationships and subconsciously repeat the trauma they once endured.

Also Read – How Do I Know If I Am Depressed or Just Lazy?

2. What Causes Complex PTSD?

While they bear many similarities, PTSD and C-PTSD differ in terms of causation. For example, traditional PTSD is caused by one or more specific events that have caused the individual great distress. These events can include:

  • Serious accidents like car accidents or natural disasters
  • Sexual and/or physical assault
  • Being kidnapped or held hostage
  • Secondary trauma – seeing violence or death secondhand
  • Childbirth complications
  • Being sectioned in a mental health ward or rehab
  • War or national conflict
causes of complex PTSD
Causes of Complex PTSD: Sexually disturbed life is very difficult to live together.

Complex PTSD, on the other hand, can include specific events but they are typically ongoing for extended periods of time. Below are situations that can cause C-PTSD:

  • Experiencing and/or witnessing domestic abuse
  • Experiencing and/or witnessing childhood abuse
  • Neglect or abandonment
  • Lack of stable housing and/or poverty
  • Mental health disorders or addiction in the immediate family
  • Distressing workplace events
  • Being forced into prostitution
  • Being a prisoner of war

3. How does Complex PTSD Affect the Brain?

Individuals with complex PTSD frequently experience a state of hyperarousal, causing them to constantly feel “on edge.” Their brains are constantly releasing high levels of stress hormones from the amygdala, like adrenaline and cortisol, which are responsible for the “flight or fight” response.

According to brain scans, individuals with C-PTSD also tend to have a smaller hippocampus, which is a section in the brain that is responsible for memory and emotional regulation. Trauma can also shut down activity across entire regions of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for personality, cognitive functioning, and impulse control, which can turn off as a result of chronic trauma.

4. What Are Complex PTSD Flashbacks Like?

Emotional flashbacks are characterized by prolonged episodes of intense arousal that can regress the individual back into a child-like state. These episodes activate the nervous system and release large amounts of stress hormones, leaving the person feeling frightened, panicked, or even suicidal. Because C-PTSD is typically caused by long-term emotional abuse, neglect, or abandonment, emotional flashbacks can trigger feelings of self-disgust, toxic shame, powerlessness, and humiliation. They can last anywhere from hours to weeks.

5. How to Treat Complex PTSD?

There are many ways to treat C-PTSD, however treatment effectiveness varies for each person. There are some staple modalities of treatment that serve as a good starting point. For example, there are multiple types of therapy and medication that can help an individual regulate their emotions and begin to process their trauma.


This category of therapy addresses the client’s emotions, helping them understand where they come from. A psychotherapist can help teach the individual how to identify and regulate their emotional responses, especially in triggering situations. Psychotherapy falls into two main types of therapy:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is traditional “talk” therapy. This form of psychological treatment is based on changing an individual’s negative ways of thinking, unhelpful learned behaviors, and problematic coping strategies. It can begin to help the individual talk openly about the traumatic events they have experienced.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

While there is some overlap in CBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy aims to change unhelpful behavior that can further a client’s feelings of invalidation, emotional distress, and loneliness. This mode of therapy addresses suicidal ideation, impulsive behaviors, emotional volatility, and relationship issues by helping the client build necessary skills.

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

Instead of reprogramming an individual’s way of thinking, this form of treatment addresses traumatic memories that have been stored away. This is done by mimicking eye movement that occurs during REM sleep, as this enables the brain to unlock memories that have been tucked away.

Somatic Therapy

This type of therapy focuses more on emotions felt within the body. Somatic therapy will help clients unpack the emotions they feel and identify where in the body they feel them. This is based on the belief that the body physiologically holds onto trauma in specific places of the body.


Those who are experiencing extreme emotions may find medication very helpful. It can provide relief in the short-term or long-term, depending on use, but are especially effective when used alongside therapy or other modes of treatment. Psychiatrists typically prescribe the following medication to treat C-PTSD:

  • Antidepressants like fluoxetine, paroxetine, or sertraline
  • Antipsychotics like olanzapine, risperidone, or quetiapine
  • Mood stabilizers like lamotrigine, gabapentin, or phenytoin

Conclusion – Everything You Need to Know About Complex PTSD

Because C-PTSD, as a diagnosis, is newly emerging, it is still not featured in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While many leading psychologists have fought for the American Psychiatric Association to accept this disorder as an official diagnosis, we still have not made it there quite yet. Thankfully, many psychologists are learning how to become more trauma-informed and help clients understand and unpack the complex trauma they have experienced.


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