Help for Complex PTSD

Jun 21, 2023 | Mental Health, PTSD, Trauma

Complex PTSD, also known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), is a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from prolonged exposure to traumatizing events. PTSD can affect people of all ages and anyone with prior traumas is at risk for developing CPTSD. 

Causes of Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD occurs when a person experiences trauma and then undergoes additional traumatic events. In essence, the traumas are compounded on top of one another. This is the case when past traumas remain unhealed or unattended to by either a trained professional, like a therapist, or another form of assistance.  The causes of complex PTSD include repeated childhood trauma and abuse, sexual violence, or domestic violence, including emotional and physical abuse by a partner or family member. It can also be caused by scenarios like experiencing war, witnessing a disturbing event like a mass shooting, as well as a host of other concerning situations.  Children that are exposed to repeated traumatic events in their formative years are at an even higher risk of developing both PTSD and CPTSD. Additionally, their chances of developing a host of other psychiatric disorders are increased.  With the emergence of social media, it has been argued that the increased exposure to disturbing events has increased the prevalence of this disorder. One example of this was seen this year as a mass shooter live-streamed his rampage on the streaming app Twitch. Any child on the app at that time was subjected to potentially witnessing this traumatic event. 

Symptoms of Complex PTSD

This trauma-related stress disorder develops in response to prolonged and repeated trauma. The symptoms of CPTSD may develop after you’ve experienced an upsetting or traumatic event you’re unable to process or successfully deal with in a healthy way. These symptoms can be similar to those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but they tend to be more severe, long-lasting, and pervasive across multiple areas of your life.  Complex PTSD is also considered a type of anxiety disorder because it causes intense fear responses as well as flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia related to past traumatic events. Other common symptoms include depression, self-harm behaviors, and substance abuse problems, all of which are behaviors associated with the effects of trauma on your mind and body over time. One of the most common symptoms of CPTSD is depersonalization or derealization. This refers to feelings of detachment or being outside your mind, body, or even physical location. In general, it’s common to feel detached from yourself after something traumatic has happened. The brain uses this strategy as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this coping strategy can leave you feeling detached from your own life.  Another common symptom of CPTSD is intrusive thoughts or memories. Intrusive memories are involuntary flashbacks that come in the form of images, sounds, or smells that remind you of past trauma. These intrusive memories can be triggered by something as simple as an odor reminding you of what happened at a time when you were experiencing sexual assault. The smell may bring back painful memories and cause intense feelings of anxiety and fear. This can also come in the form of music, driving past a certain location, or seeing the face of someone linked to the trauma. CPTSD sufferers also deal with various kinds of avoidance as a result of past traumas. Avoidance is when someone avoids people, places, or activities because they remind them of their traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, this avoidance can lead to social isolation and withdrawal. Another common symptom of CPTSD is flashbacks. Flashbacks involve reliving part or all of an event through images/sensations/emotions.  These flashbacks can be debilitating and extremely distressing.  

Diagnosing Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD can be diagnosed with the same criteria used for PTSD, but it’s more common in people who have experienced prolonged trauma. The main difference between complex PTSD and other types of post-traumatic stress disorder is that the sufferer has had repeated, long-term exposure to trauma through repeated events or ongoing circumstances over a prolonged period of time rather than a singular event like combat or sexual assault.

Treatment for Complex PTSD

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the treatment of complex PTSD. The most common therapy is talk therapy, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or other therapies that focus on helping you process past trauma and build healthier relationships in the present. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people change their thoughts and behaviors by addressing problematic patterns in their lives. It’s often recommended as an additional treatment for individuals diagnosed with Complex PTSD.  Medication might be helpful if you have depression or anxiety as a result of complex PTSD. Self-help can also be an essential part of managing your symptoms, whether you’re recovering from a traumatic event or looking for ways to cope with ongoing stressors. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or yoga, can help rewire your brain and reduce stress reactions in people who experience trauma. Finally, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is another technique that can be used by a licensed and trained therapist to aid in the treatment of CPTSD. EMDR uses eye movements, sounds, or hand taps to process memories so that CPTSD symptoms decrease over time. This form of treatment has been shown effective for trauma survivors at many different stages of development. Complex PTSD is a severe mental health condition that needs to be treated by trained professionals. By gaining knowledge on coping mechanisms, working on processing the trauma, and practicing neuroplasticity, patients with CPTSD can begin their healing journey.

New Dimensions Can Help!

If you are struggling with Complex PTSD, New Dimensions can help.  New Dimensions has Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) for treating adolescents and adults who are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.  We have in-person treatment locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and Houston, Texas and have online virtual treatment programs for individuals who reside within the State of Texas.  To learn more about our treatment programs, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at   MHThrive provides individual, family, and marriage counseling services.