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  • Writer's pictureSophia Khan

What is C-PTSD?

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition that emerges from prolonged, repetitive trauma, typically experienced during childhood or within situations where escape is difficult, such as abusive or toxic relationships, or childhood abuse or neglect. C-PTSD can also result from being harmed by someone in a position of trust. This may include having a narcissistic or emotionally immature parent, or from being betrayed by a loved one.

Unlike PTSD, which often results from a single traumatic event, C-PTSD is rooted in chronic trauma and can deeply affect every aspect of a person's life.

Causes of C-PTSD

C-PTSD often arises from:

  • Childhood Trauma: Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or neglect during formative years.

  • Relationship Trauma and Betrayal Trauma: Being hurt or betrayed by someone we trust or love.

  • Domestic Violence: a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.

  • Chronic Illness or Medical Trauma: Prolonged and severe medical issues, especially when coupled with invasive procedures or neglectful care.

  • Captivity or Enslavement: Being held captive, whether in war, human trafficking, or situations of extreme control and manipulation.

  • Community Violence or War: Living in a war zone or being exposed to continuous violence in one's community.

Symptoms of C-PTSD

C-PTSD shares many symptoms with PTSD but has additional layers of complexity:

  • Emotional Regulation Difficulties: Intense and unpredictable emotions, often leading to mood swings, rage, or deep sadness.

  • Consciousness Issues: Dissociation, memory lapses, and difficulty concentrating or staying present.

  • Self-Perception Distortions: Chronic feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame.

  • Relationship Problems: Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, trust issues, or isolating oneself.

  • Perception of Perpetrators: Obsessive preoccupation with or complete avoidance of the perpetrator(s), sometimes feeling a confusing mix of love and hatred.

  • Changes in Belief Systems: Altered beliefs about oneself, others, and the world, often skewing towards a negative outlook.

Effects on the Nervous System

C-PTSD fundamentally alters the way the nervous system functions:

  • Hyperarousal: Persistent state of fight-or-flight, causing anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disturbances.

  • Hypoarousal: Tendency to shut down or dissociate, leading to feelings of numbness or detachment from reality.

  • Altered Stress Response: Chronic stress and hypervigilance, resulting in an overactive amygdala and a dampened hippocampus, affecting memory and emotion regulation.

  • Autonomic Dysregulation: Difficulty regulating the autonomic nervous system, leading to symptoms like heart palpitations, digestive issues, and chronic pain.

Therapy Modalities for C-PTSD

Recovery from C-PTSD is possible with the right therapeutic interventions. Some effective modalities include:

  • Internal Family Systems (IFS): IFS therapy helps individuals explore and heal their inner parts, especially those that are wounded and carry the burdens of trauma. It encourages self-compassion and empowers individuals to integrate these parts into a cohesive self.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals process and reframe traumatic memories. It uses bilateral stimulation (like eye movements) to reduce the intensity of traumatic memories and their emotional impact.

  • Nervous System Support: Techniques that directly support the nervous system can be crucial. These include:

  • Somatic Experiencing: Focuses on bodily sensations to release trauma stored in the body.

  • Polyvagal Therapy: Utilizes an understanding of the vagus nerve and its role in emotional regulation to help individuals feel safe and grounded.

  • Mindfulness and Yoga: Practices that promote mindfulness and body awareness can help regulate the nervous system and reduce symptoms of trauma.

Path Towards Recovery

Healing from C-PTSD is a gradual and non-linear journey. It involves:

  • Building Safety: Establishing a sense of safety in one's environment and relationships is crucial. This includes setting boundaries and creating a supportive network.

  • Self-Compassion: Developing a compassionate relationship with oneself, recognizing that trauma responses are natural reactions to unnatural circumstances.

  • Therapeutic Support: Engaging consistently with therapy to process trauma, to regulate the nervous system, and to develop healthy coping skills.

  • Nourishing Lifestyle: Incorporating joyful movement, nourishing meals, and sufficient sleep to support overall well-being.

  • Community and Connection: Finding or building a community of understanding and supportive individuals can provide a sense of belonging and acceptance.

While C-PTSD is a deeply challenging condition, it is possible to find healing and reclaim one's life. Through dedicated therapeutic work, support for the nervous system, and a compassionate approach to oneself, individuals can move towards a future where they are not defined by their trauma, but by their resilience and capacity for growth. The path towards recovery is personal and unique to each individual, but with the right support and strategies, healing is within reach.

Looking for more support?

Hi, I’m Sophia and I’m a trauma therapist who specializes in supporting those with C-PTSD.

Book a Free 15-Minute Consultation Here:


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