If you are experiencing symptoms in addition to those that describe PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), you may be struggling with complex relational trauma. Understanding this condition is essential to providing the treatment that will stabilize your condition and minimize your symptoms.
Complex trauma is not yet an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5); however, it is a condition recognized by researchers and therapists. A deeper understanding of complex trauma has led to the term relational trauma as the disorder usually arises as a result of traumatic close relationships.
The difference between PTSD and complex relational trauma
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is understood to be caused by the experiencing or witnessing of a terrifying event. For example, the witnessing of death or threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Following the traumatic event, you may experience symptoms such as unwanted and upsetting memories or flashbacks of the event, avoidance of any reminder of the trauma, as well as various mood and functional impairment. For a comprehensive list of PTSD symptoms, read here.
Complex relational trauma is different than PTSD as it is not caused by a single traumatic event or isolated incidents. Instead, it is caused by ongoing trauma and/or abuse that occurs repeatedly over time. Usually, complex relational trauma is a result of ongoing childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. A parent with a mental disorder or personality disorder can create relational trauma for their child through repeated violation of boundaries, rejection, betrayal, and confusion.
Complex relational trauma can be understood through the workings of the attachment relationship. During infancy and childhood, we are dependant upon our caregivers to keep us safe and comfort us when we are afraid, ill, or hurt. It is through a secure attachment relationship that we begin to develop the building blocks of emotion management and coping skills. A secure attachment relationship teaches the body and mind that upsetting experiences are followed by support and comfort. Over time the nervous system and the mind (cognitive development) learn to self soothe as well as rely on others for help when it is needed.
The development of a secure bond is a crucial task of the parent-child attachment relationship. If a parent is unable to bond with their child due to his or her own history of trauma, mental illness, or a personality disorder, the parent will become a source of danger and fear rather than safety and comfort. Due to the developmental stages that occur throughout childhood, the results of this type of ongoing trauma can be devastating to a child’s mental and emotional health.
If you are an adult struggling with the symptoms of complex relational trauma, therapy can be essential in reducing symptoms and creating stability in your life. Some individuals choose to start with intensive trauma in order to make more progress in a short period of time.
What complex relational trauma can look like in adults
The impacts of complex relational trauma are wide-ranging and can look very different depending on the person.
Adults with complex trauma often have difficulty managing their emotions, stress, and anxiety. Developing and maintaining healthy relationships can also be challenging. Many times a person with complex relational trauma repeat childhood experiences in adult relationships because they tend to be attracted to people who are similar to those he or she grew up with. When we are young we learn how relationships work and we carry this knowledge with us into adulthood. However, with practice, you can learn to create and maintain healthy relationships.
The symptoms of complex trauma can be emotional, behavioral, psychological, and physical. They include but are not limited to the following:
- Difficulty managing negative emotions like fear, anxiety, stress, and sadness. For those who struggle in this way, negative feelings become too intense and last for too long. Bringing the emotional state back into balance can be difficult.
- Difficulty trusting in relationships
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Depression, anxiety, panic attacks
- Destructive or risky behavior
- Experiencing intrusive thoughts about past traumatic events
- Cutting yourself off from family and friends
- Substance and/or alcohol abuse and misuse
- Difficulty sleeping
- Startled by loud noises
- Headaches, dizziness, and chest pains
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Belief that the world is a dangerous place
- Loss of trust in self and others
- Difficulty concentrating
- Suicidal thoughts
The symptoms of complex trauma overlap with mood and personality disorders and may be missed if you are struggling with another disorder such as substance abuse, an eating disorder, or panic disorder. It is important to identify trauma in therapy, in order to ensure that a proper treatment plan is developed for you.
Recovery from relational complex trauma is a multi-dimensional process. Healing occurs in the context of a safe emotional environment in therapy and our experienced and trained therapists are here to support you.
Within a trusting and supportive therapeutic relationship, past trauma can be brought to light and healing can begin. Our goals in therapy will be to help you develop your emotional management and coping skills, make meaning out of past events, and form a constructive and empowering narrative around your life events. We’re here to help you stop suffering and learn to thrive.
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