Understanding Complex Post-Traumatic Disorder & How To Seek Treatment Online

Updated February 8, 2023by MyTherapist Editorial Team


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.

Feeling Stress From A Negative or Traumatic Event?

Let's start with an explanation of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Is 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.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder And Borderline Personality Disorder

Both disorders have different degrees and variations of symptoms that help them remain distinct.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms

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):

  • Prolonged feelings of terror
  • Apathy towards most things and situations
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Distorted Sense of Self
  • Avoiding specific places and people
  • Somatic symptoms including fatigue, dizziness, and nausea

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Tests

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.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Recovery

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.

Medication Therapy

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.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) Triggers

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.

Feeling Stress From A Negative or Traumatic Event?

Final Thoughts

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 someone from the family suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and wants to get help, contact a board-certified therapist at BetterHelp.com today.

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