Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)
Do you feel disconnected and alien from other people?
Did your childhood experiences give you negative messages about yourself and the world?
The diagnostic criteria for PTSD are really created around the assumption that a person has experienced one single traumatic event. Trauma professionals are aware, however, that this may not always be the case. For this reason, we endorse Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Many forms of trauma are subtle and difficult to pinpoint. For example, children come into the world hard-wired to expect responsive and attuned attachment. Some caregivers, however, are for whatever reason unable to provide that. They may view a child as a threat on some level and be hostile. They may have their own trauma and be disconnected and non-present. Children of parents who abuse drugs and alcohol, for example, often have C-PTSD.
The steady and consistent accumulation of a million times over going through the process of seeking comfort and security and not being able to find it can be identified as trauma. An early environment that is inconsistent, unpredictable or non-attuned can be defined as trauma.
A good deal of complex trauma does take place in childhood, because we are so vulnerable during that time. If our environment is abusive or neglectful, we take in messages about ourselves as unlovable and the world as physically or emotionally unsafe.
People with C-PTSD often have difficulty trusting other people and being emotionally close with others. They are likely to have low or unstable self-worth, maybe feeling that they are only as good as their accomplishments or continuously seeking the approval of others. Paradoxically, they can also be irritable and reactive at times, critical and demanding of themselves and others.
The nature of C-PTSD means that many people may have this condition for years and not realize it. We all think on some level that whatever was normal in our family is the norm, and it takes experiencing something different to really connect with all the possibilities that are out there. If we were rejected as children, for example, we will likely expect rejection as adults. Often, expecting rejection leads us to avoid reaching out for connection, and so our essential goodness is never affirmed. In this way, the message becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Effective therapy for C-PTSD is based in relationship. The idea of treatment is to identify the early developmental needs that were not met by the unresponsive environment, grieve the fact that they were not met when they were supposed to be, and find a way to meet them now. Often, connecting emotionally with a present and grounded therapist is enough to catalyze immense personal growth.
People who have had successful treatment for C-PTSD report that they feel at ease with themselves and connected with others in ways that they had never thought possible. They report enhanced vitality and a renewed sense of meaning in their lives. They are able to form healthy, fulfilling relationships and truly be present for and enjoy them.