Experiencing a traumatic event, or multiple traumatic events can impact your sense of security and safety in the world. You may begin to view your environment and others as dangerous and scary. Sometimes the resulting symptoms can be debilitating and long lasting. However, with proper help, you can process the trauma and return to a state of emotional well-being.
What Is A Traumatic Event
A trauma refers to an emotional or psychological response to an experience that is deeply disturbing and overwhelms your ability to cope. There is usually a perceived threat to self or someone you care about. This is often a one time event, such as a natural disaster, a bad accident, or being a victim of a violent crime. Even witnessing or repeatedly hearing about someone else’s traumatic experience can cause trauma.
Complex trauma refers to repeated trauma over time that is interpersonal in nature where there is little hope for escape. This can include kidnap victims, prisoners of war, and human trafficking victims. It also includes children who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or extreme neglect from their parent or other caregiver.
What’s The Difference
Experiencing a traumatic event can be difficult to process. Any trauma can lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms that can interfere with daily functioning. When you experience repeated trauma, you are unable to heal from a traumatic event before being it happens again. With complex trauma, you often depend on your abuser in some way. Complex trauma can include PTSD symptoms as well as additional symptoms that can drastically interfere with your ability to form meaningful relationships and to function effectively.
Feelings of fight, flight, or freeze come up when you experience a traumatic event. When these feelings do not resolve on their own and continue at a high level of intensity, PTSD can develop. Symptoms including hypervigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance, heightened startle reaction, intrusive thoughts, and angry outbursts can occur. These symptoms can lead to isolation and loneliness that can cause difficulty in daily functioning. Intense and disturbing thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic event that continue longer than one month can lead to a diagnosis of PTSD.
If you are involved in a bad car accident, you might experience nightmares and flashbacks related to the accident that continue after several months. You might avoid the street where the accident occurred. Extreme anxiety can occur at the thought of being in a car. When you have to ride in a car, even though intellectually you know you are okay and the accident is over, you may feel as though you are not safe and react as if the accident is about to happen again at any moment.
Complex PTSD can include all of the symptoms of PTSD plus some other symptoms related to experiencing complex trauma. These additional symptoms include difficulty regulating emotions, a negative self view, and difficulty with relationships. Preoccupation with the abuser, which may include thoughts of revenge, can occur. Dissociation, disconnecting from memories, thoughts, feelings, or actions, and amnesia related to the trauma can also be experienced. Those with complex trauma can receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, someone with BPD often has volatile relationships and an inconsistent self-concept. Someone who experiences complex PTSD often has a consistently negative self view. They see themselves as being different from others. This can cause a great deal of shame. They may even blame themselves for the abuse. Because of this, they tend to avoid relationships.
If you were beaten by your father daily, you might experience flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms as an adult. You might have dissociated as a way to disconnect from the abuse. This dissociation can continue as an adult when something reminds you of the abuse. Relationships may trigger memories of the way you were treated and you might even distrust and avoid men. You could feel a great deal of shame and be preoccupied with getting revenge against your father. Anger and mood swings can make relationships and employment difficult to maintain.
There are some evidence based therapeutic approaches that can help decrease the symptoms of both PTSD and Complex PTSD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and specifically, Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT) has been shown to be effective. TFCBT is a type of exposure therapy that focuses on providing coping skills, psychoeducation, and gradual exposure to the trauma. This occurs by creating a trauma narrative and talking through the traumatic experience and identifying and replacing negative thought patterns.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach using bilateral stimulation to help you reprocess a negative event. This is a short term, client lead therapeutic approach. It allows for the reprocessing of traumatic experiences without a lengthy discussion of the details of the trauma. Instead, the focus is on what you experience when thinking about the trauma, paying attention to images, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Although EMDR can bring relief from a single trauma within six sessions, complex trauma will likely require more sessions.
If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD, you can find relief. A trauma informed therapist can help determine the therapeutic approach that will be most beneficial for easing your symptoms. It may take time, but you can heal and live a fulfilling life defined by what you want it to be, not by past trauma.