Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD

What is Complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD (cPTSD) is a condition resulting from prolonged and repeated trauma, most commonly occurring during childhood. A common misconception about cPTSD is that the person has to have experienced physical or sexual abuse to have a cPTSD diagnosis, but this is not the case. The trauma can take the form of witnessing physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, or physical neglect.

Attachment trauma & attachment difficulties

Attachment trauma can be applied to someone that has experienced emotional abuse or emotional deprivation, usually at the hand of a parent or carer. According to schema therapy, someone with emotional deprivation has come to expect that a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others. Individuals with attachment difficulties will generally have experienced the following in relation to a key attachment figure in their life:

Deprivation of Nurturance

This involves an ongoing absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.

Deprivation of Empathy

This involves an ongoing absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings.

Deprivation of Protection

This involves an ongoing absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others. This can include failure to protect a child from the other parent or an abusive family member. Attachment trauma is not necessarily the fault of the parent, or of any one person. For example, attachment trauma may result from the following situations:

  1. The parent/carer has a physical illness, mental illness, neuro divergence, or intellectual impairment that prevents them from meeting the child’s needs (note: many parents that fit these categories can meet their child’s needs more than adequately)
  2. The parent/carer struggles to identify and regulate their own or others emotions
  3. The parent/carer has a significantly different personality/set of needs that leads to repeated disruption/misunderstandings in the relationship
  4. The parent/carer is forcibly distracted by urgent needs such as financial distress, another child with complex needs, divorce/loss of partner etc.

While some people may not identify with attachment trauma, they may relate to having experienced significant ongoing attachment difficulties with their parent/carer. People who have experience emotional deprivation or attachment difficulties, tend to see their emotions as:

  1. Not real
  2. Not important or significant
  3. Not making sense (illogical or an overreaction)

Signs of attachment trauma in adulthood include relationship difficulties such as co-dependency, fear of rejection and intimacy, maintaining toxic relationships, difficulty maintain relationships and poor interpersonal boundaries.

  • Hyperarousal
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Impulsive behaviours
  • Low self worth
  • Engaging in substance use

Parentification

Parentification is a form of cPTSD that occurs when the child is forced to take on the role of the carer (either physically or emotionally), and the carer takes on the role of the child. This can occur when a parent/carer is mentally, emotionally or physically unable to parent (sometimes through no fault of their own).

While not meeting the typical definition of parentification, individuals may have a similar experience to parentification through the following scenarios:

  • Having to worry about finances early on
  • Having a parent/carer open up to them about adult topics or stressors at an inappropriate age
  • A parent/carer periodically using the child as an emotional support. This can include the carer divulging their own trauma

Is cPTSD it in the DSM?

The Diagnostic and Stastical Manual (DSM) does not recognise cPTSD as significantly different from PTSD, and therefore cPTSD was not included in the latest DSM. That said, many individuals find the term cPTSD or attachment trauma therapeutically meaningful and validating.

What are the treatment options for cPTSD?

There are a number of treatment options available for cPTSD. These include:

Acceptance Commitment Therapy (CFT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) can also be useful for cPTSD depending on the symptoms that need targeting. It is important that you work with your therapist to finding the therapy, or combination of therapies, that is the right fit for you.

Does trauma therapy involve going over the memories?

While some aspects of trauma therapy can involve desensitising painful memories or triggers, that is only one trauma therapy strategy out of many, and some people undergo trauma therapy without focusing on the details of the trauma at all.

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