Complex PTSD: What Is it, Symptoms, and Treatment
By Lauren Krouse
Complex trauma happens when bad experiences, such as neglect, abuse, discrimination, or violence, keep stacking up in your life and make it hard to function. It can be challenging to heal from, because the emotional wounds can run deep and affect your life in so many ways, from overwhelming emotions to rocky relationships.
No matter your situation or how long it’s been with you, there are effective treatments and tools that can help you begin to feel better. Learn more about CPTSD, complex trauma, and how you can begin to heal.
What Is CPTSD?
CPTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, is a mental health condition that can develop after you’ve experienced complex trauma. CPTSD can cause ripple effects throughout your life, making it hard to manage emotions, build and maintain relationships, and get by in school and at work. CPTSD also often comes along with mood disorders, personality disorders, and problems with alcohol and drugs as you try to self-medicate.
CPTSD is not officially recognized as a stand-alone condition by the DSM-5 (the manual therapists and doctors use to diagnose mental disorders), but it has been added to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a tool used by medical professionals around the globe. Many experts agree that CPTSD is different from PTSD in meaningful ways.
What Are the Symptoms of CPTSD?
People with CPTSD experience symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks and triggers, but they also face other challenges with their moods and relationships. We need more research, support, and specialized treatments for people dealing with it.
Symptoms of CPTSD include symptoms of PTSD, such as:
- Re-experiencing traumatic events through flashbacks, intrusive memories, or nightmares.
- Making a big effort to avoid reminders of the trauma.
- Feeling like you have to constantly be alert or on guard.
Along with symptoms of PTSD, people with CPTSD may also struggle with:
Emotional regulation problems:
- Overreacting to day-to-day stressors and not being able to manage them.
- Angry or aggressive outbursts.
- Reckless or self-destructive behaviors such as unsafe sex, dangerous driving, problems with alcohol or drugs, or self-harm.
- Feeling numb or unable to experience positive feelings.
Strong negative beliefs about yourself:
- Feeling really down on yourself, like you don’t have anything to offer.
- Having intense feelings of guilt, shame, or failure related to what you went through, such as blaming yourself for an abuser’s actions or for not being able to protect or save others.
Persistent relationship challenges:
- Struggling to keep friends or partners or feel close to others, or running through intense, unstable relationships.
- Avoiding, talking down about, or not being interested in relationships or engaging with other people in general.
How Is CPTSD Treated?
Researchers have found that some evidence-based therapies for PTSD, such as cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE), can also help people with CPTSD. With support, you can find new ways to identify and process what you’re feeling and adopt coping skills to manage emotions and build stronger relationships.
CPTSD Can Feel Immensely Lonely, But You Deserve Support
If you have a history of complex trauma and think you may have CPTSD, it’s common to feel out of control, sad, mad, or even hopeless. You are not alone in this, and sometimes having a name for what you’re dealing with and tools to cope can be a relief. These experiences are terrible and something you never should have had to go through, but you can begin to feel better, find hope, and take back control of your life with professional help.
Learn how to find affordable mental health care, connect with a culturally competent therapist, or search for a therapist who has experience treating trauma and PTSD. It’s great if you can find someone who has expertise in trauma-focused therapy, but the most important factor is finding a person you can open up to, share goals with, and work with to forge a new path forward. Sometimes it takes time to find the right fit, but keep trying. It’s worth it.
If you need help right now:
- Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
- Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
- If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis