Many people are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health disorder brought on by exposure to traumatic events. Today'slatest psychological research has uncovered a form of PTSD known as "complex post-traumatic stress disorder C-PTSD. This article discusses what complex post-traumatic stress disorder is, compares C-PTSD with bipolar disorder, and provides treatment and recovery options for healing.
Let's start with an explanation of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that happens because of chronic exposure to an undesirable stressor or event. People who have complex post-traumatic stress disorder have been repeatedly exposed to negative outcomes and events like domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, victims of slavery, human trafficking, and all other forms of abuse.
***PTSD is an anxiety disorder that happens because of trauma. Researchers believe that C-PTSD results from trauma that has impacted specific brain areas, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Mental health experts believe that witnesses to or victims of repeated traumatic events - from which they cannot escape- are likely to develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder. People with this form of post-traumatic stress continued to experience or relive painful traumas for an extended period.
In fact, people who have complex post-traumatic stress disorder may experience strong effects and symptoms when they reach out for support.
There has been some debate about whether C-PTSD shares similarities with other mental health disorders like a borderline personality disorder. The distorted sense of self that can be a symptom of this disorder is one of the shared symptoms between these two that cause the comparison. Both disorders have different degrees and variations of symptoms that help them remain distinct.
The symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder are like the primary form of this anxiety-based mental health disorder. People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (and the complex version of this disorder) often suffer from flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares and report high irritability and uncontrollable anger in response to everyday situations.
Additional symptoms of C-PTSD include feeling the following (most of the time):
Two primary tests rule out the presence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The first step for mental health seekers to take is to get a complete physical exam to rule out the presence of any other underlying medical conditions. When it comes to ruling out any form of physical or mental illness, getting a complete physical is always a good place to start. After the results of your physical exam, the next step is to get a psychological evaluation.
Physical exam - It's important to start with a physical exam when you're trying to rule out the existence of any mental health disorder. You can get a physical exam from your primary care provider or local public health department to rule out any underlying medical issues that may aggravate your symptoms of C-PTSD.
A physical exam may include tests for eye, ear, and dental functioning. Your medical provider will also check for mobility and order laboratory tests to screen for health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Like online therapy, some distance medical care providers are offering services like checkups and wellness visits online. When lab work is required in these cases, they refer patients to local diagnostic facilities to complete the required tests.
Psychological Evaluation - Once you've completed a medical exam and ruled out any major medical issues, the next step to take is to request a psychological evaluation from your primary care physician or licensed mental health professional. A psychological evaluation comprises a series of related and unrelated questions that help health professionals screen for commonly diagnosed mental health disorders.
Your healthcare provider may provide you with more than one type of psychological evaluation or assessment based on the symptoms you've been experiencing. After answering a series of questions, a licensed mental health professional will review your assessment to determine what (if any) diagnosis you have under the DSM-5 standards for diagnosis.
If your results show that you have C-PTSD, your health care provider will recommend a regimen that includes talk therapy, medication management, lifestyle changes - like improving dietary habits, or all of the above. They base your treatment plan on the level of severity of your existing symptoms.
We consider a condition as "chronic" if it lasts for a consecutive period of around four to eight weeks or one to two months. Acute conditions come on suddenly with no prior symptoms and don't normally require ongoing treatment. Chronic conditions last for varying periods and are expected to have long-term effects.
Common treatments for C-PTSD are psychotherapy, medication management, and lifestyle changes. C-PTSD is a mental disorder that may have symptoms that improve over time. However, C-PTSD symptoms may never go away. So it's important to follow the treatment plan created for you with your mental health provider to mitigate ongoing symptoms and reduce the effects of ongoing anxiety.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the more popular treatments for C-PTSD and non-complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Cognitive-based therapies focus on the concept that reward and punishment are primary drivers of human behavior. Another key component of CBT is the idea that suffering results from maladaptive beliefs. Cognitive therapy aims to induce brain changes that result in reduced suffering and more positive outcomes.
Exposure Therapy (ERP)
ERP is another form of cognitive-behavior therapy that focuses on the gradual reintroduction of the traumatic stimulus. The goal of exposure therapy is to reduce the effect that specific traumatic circumstances have on the individual. Psychology researchers believe that introducing someone to a negative stimulus over time will reduce the stimulus's effect.
There are a variety of medications prescribed to help reduce the symptoms of C-PTSD. Some medications used also help to mitigate the symptoms of more than one mental health disorder. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic antidepressants, antidepressants Zoloft and Paxil are examples of SSRIs and SSNIs medications approved by the FDA to treat and manage C-PTSD symptoms.
Re-exposure to the traumatic event directly or indirectly. Visual representations of similar events being depicted in movies, television, and social media can also trigger factors that aggravate C-PTSD. Flashbacks of the events and re-experiencing the trauma can also cause aggravation of symptoms.
Triggers for what aggravates or worsens the symptoms of C-PTSD can vary from person to person. What causes one person to experience heightened negative symptoms may not affect another person suffering from the same diagnosis.
At present, doctors and psychologists provide the same treatment options for reducing the effects of individual triggers on C-PTSD as they do for the disorder's non-complex form.
Non-Traditional And Emerging Therapies
While there are some traditional therapies used for managing C-PTSD symptoms like those mentioned above, there are also non-traditional therapies tested as treatments for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The following are examples of non-traditional and emerging therapies for C-PTSD.
Acupuncture - This ancient Chinese form of needling is a common holistic treatment to help mitigate C-PTSD symptoms. Research studies have shown that acupuncture for C-PTSD has the same effects as equivalent cognitive-behavior therapy sessions. Acupuncture providers can be found by performing a Google search for "Acupuncture provider near me."
Meditation/Mindfulness - Practicing meditation and mindfulness is another way to help mitigate the anxiety and depression symptoms of C-PTSD. People who practice this form of mindful breathing often report a reduction in symptoms after developing regular meditation and mindfulness practice. There are many meditations and mindfulness practitioners that specialize in guided meditation therapy. A quick Google search can find results for practitioners in your area.
Service Animals - Dogs and other service animals are being trained as companions for mental health sufferers to help them relieve the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Mental health service animals have the same rights and privileges as medical service animals and are allowed wherever medical service animals are allowed.
They train service animals to provide emotional support for their owners. They even train some animals to hug when they sense that their owner is feeling down or retrieving everyday items like slippers and medications. Many people enjoy a reduction in symptoms after getting a mental health support animal. If you're interested in getting a mental health support animal near you, check with your local animal resource center.
In wrapping up the topic of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, we've discovered that this disorder is very much like the non-complex form when it comes to symptoms. The "compounding" factor in C-PTSD is the repeated exposure to trauma that is inescapable and makes the two disorders distinctly different. This means that the source of the trauma - is likely a regular participant in the life of the C-PTSD sufferer and can be the cause of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
If you or a family member suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and wants to get help, contact a board-certified therapist at BetterHelp.com today.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is complex post-traumatic stress disorder?
Complex PTSD occurs when someone has experienced repeated trauma over a period of time. It is distinct from classic post-traumatic stress disorder in which someone develops symptoms after a major traumatic event. In complex post-traumatic stress disorder CPTSD, the person often has several overlapping triggers, a distorted sense of self, and general feelings of apathy and low-stress resilience. This happens because the continual exposure to trauma has damaged the part of the brain that manages stress. The person with C-PTSD often has a very low-stress tolerance and struggles with processing trauma, leading to irritability and re-traumatization.
Is Complex PTSD serious?
C-PTSD can be a life-threatening condition. Because people with C-PTSD struggle to process trauma and stress, they are often more susceptible to suicidal thoughts and substance abuse. The condition also causes dissociation, which is similar to borderline personality disorder but results from the brain attempting to protect itself from traumatic memories. This leads to what is essentially an anxiety disorder: the inability to process stress and a highly dysregulated mood.
Is Complex PTSD worse than PTSD?
Both PTSD and complex PTSD can be devastating for someone because they disrupt daily life and cause negative ripple effects on behavior, stress management, and self-esteem. While it’s difficult to define “worse,” it is usually the case that C-PTSD is more challenging to treat than classic PTSD. That’s because there are multiple traumatic events associated with the condition. Over time, the brain continues to dissociate from the trauma until dissociation becomes a normal process. This can make it very hard for patients with C-PTSD to even identify their traumas, which is the first step toward processing them.
What are the symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder?
Both classic post-traumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD involve the sorts of symptoms you see in movies: nightmares, flashbacks, jumpiness, and moments of anger. However, complex PTSD symptoms include chronically low self-esteem, emotional dysregulation, relationship and intimacy issues, dissociation, memory disruption, and loss of values or meanings system. This means that while a person with classic PTSD may have severe reactions when reminded of the traumatic event, someone with C-PTSD will often lose their faith, experience feelings of hopelessness and isolation, perpetually view themselves as broken, and often even forget their traumatic experiences. If you are in an abusive relationship, you may find yourself giving your abuser complete control over your activities because your trauma prevents you from remembering their abuses.
Can PTSD change your personality?
Yes, as with any anxiety disorder, PTSD and complex PTSD can significantly affect your personality. Our personalities are not solid, unchanging conditions. They stem from our experiences. Any traumatic experience can re-shape our perceptions, make us less resilient to further trauma or cause us to withdraw from other people. In people with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, the act of withdrawing, or dissociation, is so frequent that many find it difficult to engage in healthy ways. Depending on your trauma, you may avoid social interaction, be irritable or snippy with others, or be distrustful and solitary.
PTSD may seem similar to borderline personality disorder. Still, while BPD involves an unstable sense of self and dramatic mood swings, Complex PTSD symptoms include consistently low moods and a stable but highly negative sense of self. Patients with PTSD — C-PTSD especially — have poor self-perception and deep feelings of hopelessness and isolation. They also tend to avoid social attachments more than people with a borderline personality disorder do.
Does complex PTSD ever go away?
Research of PTSD and complex PTSD brains shows significant memory, stress response, and mood regulation changes. However, the brain can always be rewired, if only to lessen the effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD may take several therapy types to help someone process their trauma and learn to connect with the world healthily, but it absolutely can be done. With the symptoms and disorder medically reviewed, treatment can begin, and C-PTSD’s daily effects can be reduced significantly.
Is complex trauma the same as complex PTSD?
The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but complex trauma generally refers to trauma experienced by children and teenagers in abusive situations. C-PTSD may develop later in life as the victims develop a negative sense of self and learn to regard the world with pessimism or detachment. A traumatic event in their teenage years or adulthood may exacerbate their symptoms.
Is Complex PTSD a mental illness?
Yes, C-PTSD is a mental illness caused by chronic or repeated trauma. Some people may be more susceptible than others due to their genetics, but all PTSD stems from at least one traumatic event that the brain struggles to process, leading to a stress disorder. Both PTSD and complex PTSD are pervasive and difficult to treat, but it is possible.
What is the difference between PTSD and C PTSD?
Classic PTSD stems from a single traumatic experience, such as a car accident, a kidnapping, a natural disaster, etc. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder CPTSD stems from a series of repeated or similar traumatic events or exposure to consistent, extreme stress over a period of time. For example, victims of childhood abuse and domestic violence may experience C-PTSD. Those who were deployed to a war zone or kept as prisoners of war are also highly susceptible to C-PTSD.
Is PTSD a permanent disability?
If PTSD and complex PTSD are left untreated, the effects are often permanent and can even worsen over the years. This is partly because the brain’s stress response center and the person’s overall sense of self are so damaged that any new stress can compound the effects — even if it’s general life stress. Symptoms of complex PTSD can also contribute to substance abuse, depression, anxiety disorder, and other conditions that worsen the patient’s health outlook.
However, several therapies, including medication, exposure-response prevention therapy, and trauma-informed counseling, can help people process traumatic memories and live happier, healthier lives — even if the traumatic event(s) happened many years ago. If you are struggling to process trauma, get a potential stress disorder medically reviewed to begin treatment. If you have found yourself giving your abuser complete control over your mindset or self-esteem, reach out to a local victim services unit to get help.