A Look at Complex PTSD

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (also known as C-PTSD) is a little confusing. The term isn’t accepted by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder, but is used to describe PTSD that is the result of extended exposure to trauma. Here’s the deal: The term PTSD describes the symptoms that a person experiences after they’ve suffered a short-lived trauma, like a violent act or a car accident. In the case of on-going or extended trauma, like being held captive or being subjected to years of abuse, a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t really capture the psychological damage that comes from prolonged trauma, which is where the label C-PTSD comes in. So, even though it is a diagnosis given by professionals when the circumstance warrants, it’s not formally recognized and isn’t officially classified with other disorders.
Who Gets C-PTSD?
We touched briefly on the kinds of situations and events that can cause C-PTSD, but here is a more detailed list to give you a better understanding of who can suffer from this form of the disorder and why.

People who have experienced repeated trauma or long-term exposure to stressors including:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Being under the control of another person
  • Captivity, either physically or emotionally captive
  • Prostitution
  • War

C-PTSD can even occur in people who grew up in an environment where they were exposed to the emotional or physical abuse of another person.

The symptoms of C-PTSD have some similarities to those experienced with PTSD, but PTSD symptoms tend to be based predominantly on fear, while those with C-PTSD on top of fear also experience much more, including:

  • Feelings of shame
  • Feelings of betrayal
  • Feeling trapped even after they’ve escaped the traumatic environment or stressor
  • Feeling demoralized

The way that C-PTSD is expressed can also be quite different from PTSD. People who have experienced complex stress experience the following symptoms:

  • Altered consciousness in which they forget the trauma or feel detached from their own mind and body, also known as disassociation
  • Issues with self-perception, like feeling as though they are different from everyone else or are completely helpless
  • Problems connecting to others and isolating themselves
  • A loss of faith and ongoing sense of hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and depression symptoms
  • Anger management issues and angry outbursts
  • A preoccupation with revenge on the person(s) who inflicted the abuse

These overwhelming feelings usually lead to destructive behavior and activities, like:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Eating disorders that often include overeating and binge eating, often in an attempt to make themselves less desirable if they experienced sexual abuse
  • Promiscuity and excessive and unusual sexual behaviors
  • Self-injury, like cutting

These symptoms and feelings just barely begin to scratch the surface of what someone suffering from complex PTSD deals with during the abuse and long after it has stopped. This disorder can impact every aspect of the person’s life from personal relationships because of their lack of trust and need to isolate themselves to feelings to their entire outlook on life by robbing them of their trust in humanity and filling them with a sense of despair and hopelessness about the future.
If you would like to learn more about PTSD, visit Healthline.

Adrienne is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and fitness for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals for Healthline or other health sites, she can be found frolicking about her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.
Whealin, Julia M, Ph.D . A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet. New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. Retrieved on February 16, 2014, from http://www.svfreenyc.org/survivors_factsheet_97.html
Cloitre, Marylene, PhD. A Developmental Approach to Understanding Complex PTSD. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies  (ISTSSS). Retrieved on February 16, 2014, from http://www.istss.org/source/stresspoints/index.cfm?fuseaction=Newsletter.showThisIssue&Issue_ID=73&Article_ID=1233
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (2013). Royal College of Psychiatrists. Retrieved on February, 16, 2014, from http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/posttraumaticstressdisorder.aspx

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