Complex PTSD Symptoms And Treatment

By: Darby Faubion

Updated January 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa

If you or someone you love is currentlyaffected by Complex PTSD, it can feel like you don’t know what else to do.  You might feel stuck or alone in your struggle. No matter what you're experiencing right now or in the past, there are tools to help you move forward to a life that feels lighter, happier, and healthier. The fact that you’re here right now looking for answer is a great indicator that hope is not lost. Taking the courageous step to investigate and pursue treatment for managing your symptoms is a victory.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a trauma-based mental illness. It manifests in many ways and can look very different. Often it causes severe anxiety around certain triggers, a sense of jumpiness, distressing nightmares, and persistent feelings and symptoms of distress. Anyone who has experienced, witnessed or repeatedly been exposed to details of atraumatic event may develop PTSD in response. In particular, individuals who have experienced repeated or ongoing trauma may be at risk for developing Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

While PTSD may develop after a single incident, C-PTSD is a group of complex symptoms that result from long-term traumatic events. Examples of ongoing trauma include long-term physical or sexual abuse, ongoing domestic violence, being a prisoner of war, or being a victim of commercial sexual abuse, including trafficking or prostitution. C-PTSD is thought to be more severe in those who experienced traumatic events for a long time, at a young age, were alone in the experience, or the experience was enacted by a caregiver, especially one they are still in contact with. 

In this article, we'll look closer at the symptoms, which bear similarity to the symptoms of PTSD, and treatment for Complex PTSD.

Complex PTSD is A Condition Where A Person Has Experienced Repeated Trauma.
Learn Skills to Protect Yourself In Online Therapy.
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Symptoms of C-PTSD

Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder usually encompasses the following PTSD symptoms:

  • Avoidance
    • Avoiding places, people, or situations that remind someone of the traumatizing event(s)
    • Avoiding thoughts, memories, and feelings of the traumatizing event(s)
  • Re-experiencing
    • Nightmares of the traumatizing event(s)
    • Distressing flashbacks of the traumatizing events(s)
    • Frightening thoughts about the traumatizing event
  • Mood and Cognition
    • Distorted or misplaced thoughts of guilt or blame
    • Negative thoughts about the world or oneself, including a sense of hopelessness or worthlessness.
    • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
    • Problems remembering specific events relating to or surrounding the period of trauma
  • Arousal and Reactivity
    • Sleeping problems, including waking early, insomnia, and oversleeping
    • Feeling stressed, on edge, or irritable
    • Feeling jumpy or startlingeasily
    • Experiencing outbursts of anger


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In addition to the list above, people suffering from C-PTSD may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty relating to others
    • An ongoing search for a rescuer
    • Distrust of others
    • Isolating oneself from relationships, even close ones
    • Avoiding close relationships altogether
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
    • Outbursts of anger
    • Persistent sadness and depression
    • Suicidal thoughts. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
  • Cognitive difficulties
    • Problems with memory (forgetting traumatic events or details surrounding them)
    • Feeling disassociated or detached from emotions and their sense of self
    • Reliving traumatic events persistently
  • Difficulty with self-perception
    • Perceiving oneself as guilty and unworthy of help
    • An overwhelming sense of shame
    • Perceiving themselves as helpless
    • Feeling different from others
  • Preoccupation with the perpetrator/perpetrators
    • Preoccupation with revenge
    • Preoccupation with one's relationship to the perpetrator
    • Attributing power to the perpetrator
  • Damage to one's belief system
    • Lack of faith
    • Inability to feel hopeful
    • Overwhelming feelings of despair

Because children and teenagers do not have the same coping mechanisms as adults, the symptoms they exhibit after prolonged traumatic events may be a little bit different. For example, children who are six years old or younger may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Bedwetting after they have learned to use the toilet
  • Acting out the traumatic event while playing
  • Loss of speech
  • Clinging to a parent or other adult; fear of being separated from them

Older children and teens experience many of the same symptoms as adults, although sometimes also experience the following symptoms of C-PTSD:

  • Disrespectful or destructive behavior
  • Misplaced guilt over not being able to prevent death or injury
  • Feelings of or a preoccupation with revenge

Complex PTSD is A Condition Where A Person Has Experienced Repeated Trauma.
Learn Skills to Protect Yourself In Online Therapy.

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Complex PTSD Treatment

C-PTSD treatment may be similar to PTSD treatment for many people. However, many experts believe that the treatment for C-PTSD should be more in-depth or long-lasting. Survivors of these kinds of traumatic events may need more resources to help re-establisha feeling of power and control over their own thoughts and actions. In addition, treatment may focus on developing a strong, positive sense of identity. There are several approaches for those seeking treatment programs for C-PTSD.

Standard behavioral therapies teach coping mechanisms and help individuals to recognize and change their negative thoughts and behaviors. This type of therapy also focuses on addressing symptoms as they arise, rather than ignoring them or trying to push through them to something more positive.

At times, it may be necessary or helpful to use medications to manage C-PTSD symptoms. Some medication regimens may include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and sleep aids.

Antidepressants help to relieve some negative mood symptoms, such as excessive guilt, shame, and blame. Alternatively, anti-anxiety medications are used to help relieve the symptoms of fear, worry, and stress that often accompany a diagnosis of C-PTSD.

Another therapeutic method known as cognitive restructuring therapy focuses on dealing with how the traumatic event occurred and helping the patient understand theirthought processes around the event. For many, self-blame, guilt, and shame are major symptoms of the diagnosis, so restructuring therapy helps put traumatic events in perspective. It works to ease these feelings by looking at the reality of the situation.


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Exposure therapy is a type of psychotherapy that exposes individuals to the trauma they once experienced in a safe way. During exposure therapy, individuals learn to face their fears, recognize their own ability to cope with it, and exert control over their reactions and impulses. This therapy often works for people who have severe symptoms of anxiety related to their traumatic experiences. It may be a step taken later on in a patient’s treatment plan.

There Is Help

The fear of rejection that often accompanies a C-PTSD diagnosis may cause some people to be apprehensive about seeking help. The benefits of talking with someone who can help you navigate the healing process is crucial.

There are many options for talking with a counselor or therapist. Some people prefer to meet in-person in a controlled setting, like a therapist’s office. It provides a safe place to explore feelings and learn new tools. Others may prefer to have more control over when and where they communicate with a counselor. In these instances, online counseling is a great option.

BetterHelp,an online counseling platform, can connect you with experienced counselors, doctors, and social workers who can help you address Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and any other mental health issues you may be facing. Their goal is to provide professional help to anyone who needs assistance navigating life's difficulties.Online counseling for battling symptoms related to C-PTSD, like depression and anxiety, has been shown to be just as effective as in-person sessions. A study looking at 318 BetterHelp users found that those users experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms in just 3 months of sessions.

Online counseling can be a great, straight forward to begin receiving help today. With no waiting around for an open spot in your local counselor’s office, online counseling can begin as soon as you’re ready, whether via messaging or phone calls or video chats. Plus, BetterHelp’s service is completely confidential, making sure your information stays safe and private.

Below you'll find some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Ted is an example of what a person is gifted to do!!! Has given me direction to go forward with complex PTSD. It's been a productive year and looking to more growth."

"Dr. Cooley was able to identify my needs and address appropriate therapy. I no longer have PTSD events that are not manageable. He has given me tools and resources to deal with my issues. I became brave enough to make positive change in my life and found I could experience joy and genuine love."

Conclusion

Dealing with any kind of trauma can feel overwhelming, but help is available. If you're affected by complex post-traumatic stress disorder, you can learn tools to work through your trauma and regain your sense of power and identity. With help from a qualified therapist, it's possible to gaincoping mechanisms to lead a healthier life. Take the first step today.


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