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How to Recognize A Complex Trauma

Trauma Therapy Professional

All you need to know about complex trauma

Trauma in a day to day language is used to describe a situation in which one feels like they are under undue stress. Complex trauma, when viewed from a psychological perspective, is defined as a situation that goes from being stressful to traumatic. And it happens as it surpasses the threshold of an individual’s capacity to deal with it.

In trauma, a person has exhausted their internal and external resources in order to deal with a direct threat that is external to them. However, it is imperative to notice that each person’s threshold is relative to them. Thus, it is highly subjective whether an experience is traumatic or not. Hence it is very difficult to draw a clear distinction between stress and trauma.

The Two Types: Single Incident

There are various types of stressful situations. Thus there are many kinds of traumas that can be experienced by a person. If it is not dealt with properly a recovery from such traumas is not possible.

There are two main kinds of traumas. One is a “Single Incident” trauma where an individual experiences a singular but serve traumatic ordeal. This type is usually associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD). In this trauma is experienced due to a stressful situation that happens only once. Example of such trauma may be natural disasters, a violent crime or an accident.

Complex Trauma

The other type is “Complex Trauma”, this kind of trauma is experienced repeatedly and stretches over a period of time. It occurs in an episodic manner and the context or the nature of the interpersonal relationship in which it occurs remains the same.

Instances of the cause of such trauma are severe cases of child abuse, exploitation, bullying, strict disciplinary actions by initial caregivers. Moreover, abandonment, soldiers being deployed in rapid succession to war-torn areas, household abuse.

For a trauma to be classified as complex it has to have three main distinctive factors. These are:

  • The traumatic experiences happen in close, the repeated succession of each other and over a period of time. The experiences are a direct threat to the victim; usually carried out by negligent or abusive parents and other adults in charge. They share an interpersonal relationship with the person causing the trauma.
  • These events usually happen during a developmentally important phase in the victim’s life. It may be infancy, adolescence or even adulthood during spells of vulnerability or weakness. IT could be due to unemployment, homelessness or disability.

Complex Trauma can be difficult to identify, treat and cure. This is as the initial event causing the trauma is often rooted within the earliest days of the person’s childhood. However, the behavior associated with it develops itself in an individual often in adulthood.

Trauma Treatment

The symptoms of complex trauma are such that they disguise the root cause and mislead peers and professionals alike. They wrongfully diagnose the symptoms as a cause. Following the event, in their adult life, they may have shown consistent signs of trauma. The signs and behavior may have surfaced periodically and then subsided or stayed dormant till the personal experiences a “trigger event”.

This kind of complex trauma renders a person to feel that he/she cannot trust or rely on anyone. From an early age, they adopt this belief. This is due to their main center for nurture, a usual caregiver or a figure of authority in their early life.

These individuals were supposed to be someone they could place their trust in, who ends up vehemently violating that trust. This leaves them with a negative outlook on themselves. And the people around them thinking that there is no one they can trust.

The people who have suffered the complex trauma developed specific methods to cope with the severity of their reality. That becomes their survival tactics. Having to fight the uncertainty and insecurity from a young age; the child internalizes these interactions by anticipating the worst.

Ana: A Complex Trauma Victim

Listed below is an account of a woman suffering from complex trauma. She and those around her were unable to identify it. We are using the alias Ana for her: Ana is a married, 44-year white lady who was coerced into seeking therapy by her husband. She was threatened to leave unless she found herself a therapist. The husband claimed she was driving him “crazy” with her highly varying behavior. Her behavior went from being dependent and needy both emotionally and physically to harsh, distant and distrusting of him.

This seemingly erratic behavior led her husband to grow cold towards Ana. He confirmed that her long-held fears made her not to trust anyone and that she was difficult to love. However, this behavior was not only contained within her marriage life. As she had a habit of being overly enthusiastic and charming in her initial meetings with people. However, later on, she started withdrawing from them.

She did this to her family, friends, and colleagues. Thus, due to her emotional unavailability in her relationships, most people would end up deserting her. They leave her to be more despondent and reclusive.

It was later discovered that Ana’s childhood was littered with abandonment. And that was because of her psychologically sick mother. That lady suffered from a severe case of schizophrenia. And a father, who though was present was abusive towards Ana and her siblings both sexually and emotionally. Due to her mother’s frequent visits to psychiatric wards, Ana and her siblings were shipped around sometimes together. Other time separated from their relatives.

The separation from her own family along with the varying degree of affection showed by her extended family left Ana in great distress. When the siblings were able to stay at home and together they were under the care of their father. He took his wife’s absence, Ana’s mother, as an excuse to sexually abuse his daughters and physically assault his sons.

However, what made the complex trauma worse was that between the episodes of abuse her father would adorn his children with love and affection. And taking full responsibility for them.

Ana recalled moments from her childhood when she willingly took the brunt of the abuse to save her siblings from it. She also took upon herself from a young age a guilt-driven responsibility to protect her siblings and mother.

This left her with self-loathing and an immense distrust of people. Even when they showed her affection. As it reminded her of the emotionally manipulative father. Resulting her in distancing herself from them.

Secondary Effect of Complex Trauma

People who have experienced complex trauma find it difficult to break from the coping methods. They continue with the survival mechanisms long after the threat has dissipated. This is because they are no longer able to trust their surroundings. This is especially true for those that have not sought any professional help. Or, if they have their trauma still unresolved.

These coping mechanisms develop into what has come to be known as secondary elaborations of untreated complex trauma. The coping mechanisms are placed first as a mean of soothing oneself. However, if they are unchecked and unmonitored, it is very easy for a victim to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms or overindulge in them. This may lead to addictions, self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

There are many other symptoms and behavioral modifications that take place in an individual after trauma. This is usually because the time at which the trauma is experienced is an important one in the growth and development of the person.

It is during the formative years as a child or a particularly vulnerable time in adulthood. This leads to the adaptation of certain characteristics that may seem as if they are a part of the individual’s identity. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Anxiety
  • Lack of trust
  • An altered sense of self
  • Suicidal Tendencies
  • Depression
  • Self-loathing
  • Self-blame, guilt, and alienation
  • Self-harm, mutilationv
  • Disassociation from one’s own self
  • Low self-esteem
  • Out-bursts
  • Panic Attacks

Most individuals have experienced trauma have difficulty dealing with emotions. Emotion like anger, fear, anxiety, depression, rejection, isolation and the above-mentioned list. They are prisoners to their past experiences. They either encounter intense and elevated intensity of emotions. Acting like others may seem as absurd or undeserving of the situation, an overreaction. Or they may act distant and cold to the point it is unsettling and people may seem them rude.

Trauma Treatment

Cure the Cause Not the Symptoms

The wide variety of symptoms coupled with the fact that complex trauma and the experience that caused it is buried deep within a survivor’s past. It leads people to wrongfully attribute the person’s behavior to wrongful diagnosis or further inflicted shame.

Even veterans in the field of psychology are guilty of this as they may chalk it up to anxiety or depression. The cause or the root of the problem is never reached in this manner. And the trauma then becomes uncured or untreated even after having sought professional health.

This sometimes leads people to think of themselves as incurable or “un-fixable.” Leading them to slide into a further depression brought on by the helplessness of being unable to help themselves. And that’s even with the help of professionals.

They develop a disassociation with their peers, unable to seem to fit into the public. They feel isolated and alienated as they cannot seem to relate to those around them. The misunderstanding by others of them leads to the solidification of their belief that they are troubled.

It should go without saying how important it is to not attribute these symptoms to other pathologies. But rather to identify the complex trauma. The symptoms should be treated as such rather than as the cause of the person’s distress.

If not taken care of the trauma can continue to reside in the body and psyche of the person. Either actively or frozen only to come forth via a triggering event.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Untreated or unresolved trauma caused by interpersonal trials in the children can lead to psychological disorders. Such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). People suffering from this have difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships. A lack of self-control and develop disassociation with their own image and surroundings.

This disorder leads to problems like a high level of depression, panic attacks, PTSD and eating disorders. However, this isn’t the only kind of disorder that a childhood trauma can cause. Others include anti-social behavior, avoidant, and schizotypal.

The trauma may be caused by verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse usually at the mercy of the primary caregiver. The person the child expects to be protecting them violates their most basic idea of trust leaving them to question their entire reality. The maltreatment of any kind whether rejection, abandonment, abuse or other by a parental figure leads to trauma.

This may create problems for the child as they journey through to adulthood in forming, caring, creating and nurturing relationships. An example of this the avoidance of attachment or the anxiety caused by it.

Studies have been conducted that confirm that individual’s with borderline personality disorder have a high likelihood to be victims of childhood sexual abuse. Also, maltreatment from primary caregivers, neglect or rejection. The number has been said to be as high as 75% of sexual abuse victims developing BPD. These individuals have an exceptionally difficult time with anxiety brought upon by attachment.

Ana was a person with similar anxiety that plagued her and left her incapable of sustaining healthy relationships with those around her. Even more astonishing is that maltreatment of other kind proved to be 90% of the times prevalent in BPD patients.

It has been hypothesized that BPD and other dissociative disorders have their origins firmly rooted in childhood trauma. They are a child’s version of coping with unfamiliar and a highly insecure life and as time progresses these coping mechanisms become more severe. The purpose of these mechanisms is to prevent any information that may cause further harm to the psyche of the survivor to enter their conscious stream of thought.

Repeat Compulsion

A very common symptom of trauma is self-loathing and self-blame. This in itself is seen as a way to recreate the initial event of the trauma as the person victimizes themselves with hate and anger. They cause pain to themselves and repeating the cycle of abuse.

This is an unhealthy behavior, however, the survivor may regress to their past self. And feeling most comfortable when victimized either as an adult or a child. This sometimes results in the formation and development of attachments to people who abuse the survivor in various ways.

The insistence to pursue and sometimes willingly seek out relationships in which the person relives the trauma may seem ironic and difficult to understand. However, the truth is that in fact there is no one consolidated answer for why people suffering from trauma recreate it and enters an endless cycle. Although it is known that in similar instances of fear as the traumatic one the person enters a hyper arousal state.

Through the new situation, they are in they re-experience their trauma and revert back to their old coping behaviors. A person who has not suffered trauma or has successfully overcome it can easily walk from a toxic situation. However, it is more difficult for those who still live with its effects to turn away as the intensity of arousal overweighs the aftermath.

However, it is important to note before casting judgment that the survivor is rarely ever aware of the patterns they are following. Every person, whether suffering from trauma or not finds comfort in familiarity. Unfortunately for those suffering from trauma what is familiar is abuse and maltreatment.

Survivors seek out abusive relationships in order to alter the result in their favor. They do that in an attempt to overcome past “failure” of being unable to protect themselves. They want to want to be able to “change” their abuser by acting differently than they had in the past.

This is an attempt to absolve themselves of the previous shortcomings that led them to be abused in their minds as they hold themselves accountable for it. This victimization is a result of internalizing the fear that they do not deserve better than what they had. Instead, they deserve the abuse they experienced.

Another factor is that even when change is for the better it is a scary and complex thing to fathom. It is difficult for anyone, let alone a survivor of trauma to travel outside one’s comfort zone and accept that they are worthy of love care and affection.

The Debilitating Effects of Trauma

Thus when trauma is not identified and diagnosed properly it can lead to many debilitating effects. These include major depressive states that leave a person unable to do even the very basic activities. Such as keeping up hygiene, eat, study, work and fulfill responsibilities.

Isolation and alienation from those around drive a person further downwards into a spiral where they find it difficult to come out of. When a person is able to gather themselves up and try to go through the actions of normal daily life, they suffer from high functioning anxiety. And they are prone to panic attacks.

Untreated and unresolved trauma is not only dangerous to ones’ relationships with those around them. But, even with their relationship with themselves. This can be seen in the development of dissociative disorders. If not taken care of the symptoms of trauma can over time develop into full-blown pathology. For example, borderline personality disorder. Once the symptoms develop into a disorder they become more difficult to treat.

Personality disorders also contribute to further difficulty in fitting in at school or work, leaving a person stranded. And further believing that people aren’t reliable. They have difficulty in cultivating and maintaining close interpersonal relationships. The relationship dilemma is further aggravated by the repeat cycle compulsion. In this, the individual enters into toxic relationships for the sake of changing the outcomes.

Treatment for Trauma

The current consensus on the best way to treat trauma is via exposure therapy. In addition, converse therapy or changing the behavioral patterns via therapy. However, these only alter the memory part of the trauma. Trauma also changes the way a person reacts to threats. Either they become highly paranoid or numb (hyperarousal) to close encounters. This makes it difficult for the individual to be present in what is going on around them, to care for their work and relationships.

It is important to deal with not only the conscious effect of trauma but also the impact imparted to our unconscious. This can be done via mindful activities. Like yoga, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and meditation. These methods have been proven to make people feel more engaged and a part of their surroundings.

Treatments Available at Pillars of Wellness

Here at Pillars of Wellness located in Burlington, Aldershot we offer a variety of services in psychotherapy. To help you deal with the conscious and the unconscious effects of complex trauma. We have specific services and therapies available for different kinds of abuse. All those which may have contributed to your trauma as we understand that it is not the same for all.

Our psychotherapists are trained in the art of dealing with the varying nature of the event that leads up to the trauma. Another important factor is that we have trained our psychotherapists in the ability to differentiate between different kinds of trauma. They can give you a treatment best suited for a complex, developmental or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The therapy available at our clinic does not only allow you to work through the memory part but also provides advanced care such as EMDR. We also provide couples and family therapy sessions. We understand how detrimental trauma can be to your close relationship and how it not only impacts your life but also of those that you care about.

The effort of our team is to help you work out any issues you may be experiencing in your relationships. And with involvement in your regular life, so you can experience a fuller and more content life.

Laurent Pinci
Laurent Pinci
Pillars of Wellness is a truly Integrated Healthcare Centre providing a high degree of collaboration and communication among health providers.