Complex PTSD may be diagnosed in adults or children who have repeatedly experienced traumatic events, such as violence, neglect or abuse.
Complex PTSD is thought to be more severe if:
- the traumatic events happened early in life
- the trauma was caused by a parent or carer
- the person experienced the trauma for a long time
- the person was alone during the trauma
- there is still contact with the person responsible for the trauma
As it may take years for the symptoms of complex PTSD to be recognised, a child’s development, including their behaviour and self-confidence, can be altered as they get older.
Adults with complex PTSD may lose their trust in people and feel separated from others.
Symptoms of complex PTSD
The symptoms of complex PTSD are similar to symptoms of PTSD but may include:
- feelings of shame or guilt
- difficulty controlling your emotions
- periods of losing attention and concentration – this is known as dissociation
- physical symptoms – such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches
- cutting yourself off from friends and family
- relationship difficulties
- destructive or risky behaviour – such as self-harm, alcohol misuseor drug abuse
- suicidal thoughts
Treating complex PTSD
One of the key symptoms of complex PTSD is losing trust in people. If possible, people with complex PTSD are recommended to slowly start doing regular activities such as:
- finding friends
- getting a job
- regular exercise
- taking on hobbies
It’s important to try and develop some feelings of trust. It may take some time, but a trusting relationship with a therapist will help treat complex PTSD.
Treatment from a therapist may be given in three stages, described below.
One of the first steps in treating complex PTSD may involve speaking with a therapist to learn how to control feelings of distrust and lose the feeling of being ‘disconnected’ from friends and family.
Certain techniques, known as ‘grounding’ techniques, may be able to help you separate an abusive or traumatic past from the present. The aim is to make the past seem less frightening and reduce the amount of flashbacks you experience.
With time, you can begin to experience less anxiety and learn to cope with daily life.
Trauma-focused therapy may include:
- certain types of psychotherapy
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
These treatments may help you to control any distressing thoughts but must be approached carefully to avoid making the situation worse.
The final stage is to begin to use these skills and techniques to develop better relationships with other people.
Medication, such as antidepressants, may still be recommended if psychotherapy isn’t possible or you feel unsafe.
You can read more information about complex PTSD on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website.