Most people are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that results from a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or car accident. But, there’s a closely related condition called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is becoming more widely recognized by doctors in recent years.
CPTSD results from repeated trauma over months or years, rather than a single event.
What Are the Symptoms of CPTSD?
The symptoms of CPTSD usually include those of PTSD, plus an additional set of symptoms. Oh how fun. We get additional symptoms!
Here are just a few symptoms of CPTSD, that I’ve experienced myself at times:
1. Reliving the traumatic experience
This can include having nightmares or emotional flashbacks. I have these.
2. Avoiding certain situations
You might avoid situations or activities, such as large crowds or driving, that remind you of the traumatic event. This also includes keeping yourself preoccupied to avoid thinking about the event. I definitely avoid crowds a lot and also even driving has been a trigger for me.
Hyperarousal refers to constantly being on-alert or jittery. For example, you might have a hard time sleeping or concentrating. You might also be unusually startled by loud or unexpected noises. I also call it hypervigilance. I have this symptom often. Even yesterday when babies were crying next to me at the bank, I felt extremely startled and it affected me.
4. Somatic symptoms
These refer to physical symptoms that don’t have any underlying medical cause. For example, when something reminds you of the traumatic event, you might feel dizzy or nauseated.
These are definitely not ALL the C-PTSD symptoms, but just four of them. I know without a doubt I suffer from these. Not always, but sometimes — which is also why this diagnosis can be complex. It’s important to know that symptoms of both PTSD and C-PTSD can vary widely between people, and even within one person over time. (Another complex thing!)
Sometimes people with CPTS are irrational too. Their thoughts and beliefs might not always match up with their emotions. They might know that, logically, they should avoid their abuser. However, they might also hold onto a sense of affection toward them.
What Causes C-PTSD?
Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how traumatic stress affects the brain and leads to conditions like CPTSD. However, studies on animals suggest that trauma can have lasting effects on the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
These areas play a big role in both our memory function and how we respond to stressful situations.
Any type of long-term trauma, over several months or years, can lead to CPTSD.
However, it seems to appear frequently in people who’ve been abused by someone who was supposed to be their caregiver or protector.
My ex husband was a Vietnam vet (he himself had PTSD ). He stalked and threatened to kill me for many months before leaving me in a foreign country , South Africa, where I was singing in a show. This happened in 1996 but is still traumatizing to think about. He took all our money out of our joint bank account and left me penniless with no way to get home, to the U.S.
OH DING DING! So, THIS (according to my therapist) is considered a long-term trauma! Hence C-PTSD.
Even though in many war veterans (and in the fictional Jack Ryans case), they experienced physical trauma, emotional trauma is also a legitimate and real cause of C-PTSD.
Yes, this is a complex medical condition but I believe that the more we talk about it and bring it out of the shadows, the sooner we can come up with better solutions. I’m glad that trauma related disorders are finally getting the attention they deserve and that scientists are spending more time on researching them.
Maybe someday these trauma issues won’t be nearly as complex to understand. That’s my hope.