Ask the Therapist: Contemplating Complex Trauma

Dear Josette:

I have had some bad things happen to me in the past. My therapist said I might have complex trauma. What exactly is complex trauma and how do I know if I have had it?

-Contemplating Complex Trauma

Dear Contemplating:

That’s a great question. Let’s break it down:

“What is it?”

Complex trauma is a term we use to describe a disorder someone has when they have had repetitive abuse or harmful experiences with no chance of escape. These experiences most often are physical or sexual abuse, exploitation, maltreatment, neglect, or abandonment from primary caregivers or people on which someone depends. These bad experiences can happen at vulnerable times in their life, especially when they were little or teenagers, and sometimes later in life where someone is vulnerable with a disability, sickness, dependency, and/or old age.

“How would I know if I had it? What does it feel like?”

Abuse and neglect make a person feel bad, broken, worthless, and hopeless. Individuals with complex trauma have a very difficult time with emotions — experiencing them, controlling them, or just being able to identify them. They may not know how to calm down and might do things without thinking through consequences before acting. They might get upset really easily and other people think they are overreacting. They might feel sad, hopeless, or really angry all the time, or even think of hurting or killing themselves. They may feel guilty, like they did something bad or the abuse was all their fault. It is hard for trauma survivors to feel compassion for themselves. Complex trauma also makes it hard to trust people or feel safe with others.

Trauma also can show up in their body in several ways. They could feel like they are not really in their body, like they are watching themselves in a movie. They might have stomach aches or headaches a lot. They might have a hard time thinking clearly, reasoning, or problem solving. They may be unable to plan ahead, anticipate the future, and act accordingly. This is because when they are repeatedly experiencing abuse, all their energy goes toward survival in the moment and not much is left for thinking about the future.

“What is happening to the person?”

When someone has complex trauma, their nervous system and brains did not get the safe and stable environment they need to develop or respond correctly. Because of that, the part of the brain designed to alert them to danger does not work quite right, and little problems or stressors feel very, very big. So, they may have very big reactions, whether that be fear, anger, sadness, or just feeling shut down. These feelings and behaviors might seem like they come out of nowhere and feel so big that they are scary to themselves and others. This makes it hard to do school or work, keep friends, and not get in trouble with others.

“Can someone with complex trauma be helped by a therapist?”

Yes. There are different ways a therapist can work with you to help you learn to calm your mind and body. Once you learn to be able to do that, you can safely work through your feelings and thoughts about what happened to you. The focus of the therapies is for you to feel safe and regain control of yourself, your body, your feelings, and your self-worth. There is hope for those with complex trauma to live happy and productive lives with the help of a trained trauma therapist.

I hope this helps, and I encourage you to talk more with your therapist about your questions.

Josette Wynne, MSW intern

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