Daniel Feerst | Understanding “Complex PTSD”


Understanding complex PTSD

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or complex PTSD, is a condition caused by repeated trauma or a sequence of traumatic events over a length of time. These traumas can include consistent mental or physical abuse, neglect, imprisonment, or exposure to war – long-lasting events that cause complex psychological damage.

Complex PTSD is a severe disorder that deeply affects its sufferers and requires specific treatment. It is particularly severe when it results from traumatic events that occurred early in the person’s childhood and/or abuse or other trauma that was inflicted by a parent or carer. Generally, the longer the person was exposed to traumatic events, the more severe the complex PTSD will be.

Differences Between Complex PTSD and Regular PTSD

According to Danial Feerst

PTSD and complex PTSD are both anxiety disorders triggered by trauma. Whereas PTSD results from a single shocking, frightening, or dangerous event such as a car accident or a natural disaster, complex PTSD is caused by ongoing trauma over months or years. Complex PTSD is usually characterized by the severity and duration of the victimization.

Although sufferers of PTSD can experience debilitating symptoms, the impacts and effects of complex PTSD are even more severe. Because of the complexity and severity of complex PTSD, it requires specific treatment. Some treatments that are effective in traditional PTSD are also appropriate for complex PTSD. But, in most cases, more in-depth treatments will be required. The treatment period is usually longer for complex PTSD compared to regular PTSD.

Who does complex PTSD affect?

By Danial Feerst,

Research into complex PTSD is still in its infancy, so we do not know exactly how the condition develops. This means that we cannot be sure in which situations complex PTSD will emerge and who will be affected. However, we do know that sufferers of complex PTSD can be past victims of any kind of long-term trauma that occurred over several months or years.

This may include victims of mental, physical, or sexual abuse, victims of ongoing childhood neglect, former prisoners of war or concentration camp victims, survivors of human trafficking, and those who lived in an area of war for a long period of time.

Anyone who experiences a chain of traumatic events or ongoing trauma may develop complex PTSD. However, there are additional risk factors that make some people more likely to develop the condition. These include an underlying or a family history of mental illness, certain inherent personality traits, a certain regulation of hormones and neurochemicals, and lifestyle factors. Complex PTSD also influences the sufferer’s interpersonal relationships, so it may also affect their partners, carers, family members, and colleagues. 

Signs and Symptoms of Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD has many of the same signs and symptoms as regular PTSD. However, people living with complex PTSD often experience these symptoms to a greater extent, as well as additional signs such as negative self-concept and interpersonal sensitivity.

Mental and emotional symptoms of complex PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing or reliving traumatic experiences
  • Hyperarousal (being constantly on edge or alert)
  • Avoiding certain situations or activities that remind them of the trauma
  • Severe mood disorders or lack of emotional regulation
  • Severe impairment of impulse control (this may contribute to destructive behaviors such as binge-eating, addiction, or hypersexualization)
  • Problematic self-identification (seeing themselves as evil or deficient) or impaired self-consciousness
  • Insecurity
  • Inability to trust others
  • Delusions or dissociation (feeling detached from their body or emotions)
  • Loss of faith or long-held beliefs
  • Rationalization or justification of their abuser’s actions
  • Borderline disorders and dissociation disorders (in some cases)

Physical symptoms of complex PTSD include:

  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue

For anyone suffering from complex PTSD, it is vital to seek help as soon as possible. Treatment for complex PTSD takes time, but it can help them to overcome the condition and break free from these debilitating symptoms. You should also know that help is available. Your employee assistance program can refer you to appropriate community resources to support you to treat this condition.


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