Unveiling Complex PTSD (CPTSD)


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that has garnered significant attention and understanding in recent years. PTSD is a severe mental health condition that most people associate with post-war veterans. However, another similar trauma-related disorder is increasingly gaining more clarity among practitioners: Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).


CPTSD is a multifaceted condition that develops in response to prolonged and repeated cycles of abuse. 


Unlike PTSD, triggered by a single traumatic incident like a war or an accident, CPTSD develops in those exposed to continuous neglect, physical, mental, verbal, or emotional abuse. It is the most prevalent outcome in those who went through traumatic events in their early stages of life (Herman, 1992). Regular exposure to such adverse experiences disrupts an individual's sense of self, safety, and interpersonal relationships (Brickel, 2022). Without understanding what has happened, survivors often grow up living in a constant state of hypervigilance (assessing potential threats) or a loop of depression and negative emotions, even after no longer being exposed to danger.


Survivors of CPTSD have an imprint of past trauma on their nervous system and probably live in hyperarousal (continuous high alert). One of the complexities of CPTSD is that people experiencing CPTSD may not even be aware of their past traumas, as they may have developed dissociative amnesia (as a defense mechanism their brain blocked out specific events associated with stress or trauma, leaving the person unable to remember important personal details during their formative years). 

Symptoms of CPTSD


Some of the symptoms of CPTSD include:


Emotional Dysregulation: Individuals with CPTSD often experience intense and unpredictable emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, or shame. They may struggle to regulate their emotional responses, leading to frequent mood swings and emotional outbursts.


Intrusive Thoughts and Memories: Similar to PTSD, individuals with CPTSD may experience intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares related to their traumatic experiences. These intrusive memories can disrupt daily life and trigger intense emotional and physical distress.


Negative Self-Concept: CPTSD often erodes an individual's self-esteem and self-worth. Survivors develop a negative self-image, shame and guilt, and a persistent sense of being damaged or flawed.


Distorted Relationships: Chronic trauma can significantly impact an individual's ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. People with CPTSD may struggle with trust, experience difficulties establishing boundaries, and have intimacy and emotional connection challenges.


Health Problems: Individuals who experience higher levels of childhood trauma have increased risks for additional health problems, including Coronary Heart Disease, Pulmonary Disease, and increased risk for health risk behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking (Brickel, 2022).

Causes of CPTSD


CPTSD typically arises from prolonged exposure to traumatic events or environments. Some common causes include:


Childhood Abuse and Neglect: Individuals who experience chronic physical, verbal, psychological, emotional, or sexual abuse during childhood are at a higher risk of developing CPTSD.


Domestic Violence: Adults trapped in abusive relationships, where they endure ongoing physical, emotional, financial, or psychological abuse, may develop CPTSD.


War and Conflict: Survivors or individuals who have lived in war-torn regions are more prone to develop CPTSD due to the persistent threat to their safety and well-being.


Human Trafficking or Imprisonment: People subjected to human trafficking, forced labor, or long-term imprisonment are at high risk of developing CPTSD due to prolonged and severe exposure to trauma.





Brickel, R. (2022). Retrieved from https://cptsdfoundation.org/what-is-complex-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-cptsd/ 


Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Dissociative amnesia: Symptoms, causes, Management & Treatment. 


Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5(3), 377–391. doi:10.1002/jts.2490050305