PTSD Awareness Day: Complex PTSD

PTSD Awareness Day: Complex PTSD by Mary Blake #TheWellnessUniverse #WUVIP #WUWorldChanger #PTSDAwareness #ComplexPTSD

In honor of PTSD Awareness Day that is recognized on June 27th, take a moment to learn about different sources of PTSD and Complex PTSD in this article.

Most of us associate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with military veterans who experience flashbacks during July fourth celebrations.

But there are other traumatic events that can cause PTSD. These include:

  • Childhood physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect.
  • Adult domestic violence or sexual assault.
  • Mass attacks like 9/11 and school shootings.
  • The disappearance/loss of a child
  • The murder of a loved one.
PTSD can also manifest in survivors of intimate relationships with a personality-disordered (pathological) partner.

PTSD has long been described as an anxiety disorder. However, recent research has shown that PTSD symptoms are similar to the behavioral and emotional symptoms of a Traumatic Brain Injury, which is caused by a blow to the head. So how does emotional trauma injure the brain?

The Neuroscience Behind Trauma:

Every cell in the body records memories and every trauma-related neuropathway can be re-activated by a triggering event. This is what creates PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks.

The brain has three parts: the reptilian brain stem that rules survival instincts and autonomic body processes; the mammalian midbrain that processes emotions and conveys sensory information; and the nonmammalian or cerebral cortex, the most highly evolved part of the brain, which controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory, and inhibition. 

During a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain takes over, shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes, and throws the body into survival mode.

The sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormone and prepares the body to fight, freeze or run away.  Normally, when the immediate threat goes away, the parasympathetic nervous system takes the body into recovery mode, and lets the brain go back to its normal top-down structure of control. But for those with PTSD, the brain doesn’t shift back into normal mode. The reptilian brain, activated by threat, keeps the survivor in a constant reactive state.

This dysregulated brain is responsible for PTSD symptoms such as unwanted memories, shame, blame, persistent negativity, hypervigilance, and avoidance of emotions and sensory reminders of the traumatic event.  Survivors often feel as though they are out of control of their own minds and bodies.

What’s Different About Complex PTSD?

It is a more chronic form of PTSD with long-lasting, sometimes lifelong symptoms if left untreated. According to senior psychotherapist Pete Walker, MFT, author of the book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, the most prevalent form of C-PTSD comes from growing up in a severely abusive or neglectful family. He believes that we have an epidemic of traumatizing families: one in three girls and one in five boys are sexually abused before they become adults and as of 2014, stats from the Kim Foundation show that 26% of Americans over 18 have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. CPTSD can also result from emotional neglect alone.

How do you know if you may have CPTSD? According to Walker, the five most common CPTSD symptoms are emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a cruel inner critic and social anxiety.

Flashbacks can range from mild to severe, and they can take survivors back to feelings experienced as an abused/abandoned child: overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief and depression. Toxic shame is the crushing sense that you are ugly, stupid or fatally flawed, which can destroy self-esteem. Self-abandonment is denying your own needs and putting the needs of others first. The cruel inner critic is the internalized voice of your abuser that you turn on yourself. Social anxiety manifests by avoiding social gatherings, being uncomfortable meeting new people and experiencing anxiety about attracting attention.  

All these symptoms result from a childhood bereft of parental warmth, love, positive attention and caring.

Adults with Complex PTSD grew up in a house that was not “a home.” They were overtly abused and left to fend for themselves, or they were pressed into service caring for other siblings and/or their addicted, disordered, checked-out parents. 

In his book, therapist Walker describes four types of defenses adopted by traumatized children to avoid danger and form some kind of attachment to their primary caregivers. In adulthood, these defenses seriously detract from a survivor’s ability to have a happy, well-rounded experience of life. These defenses are fight, flight, freeze and fawn. They manifest in survivors who are wary of real intimacy because it triggers painful emotional flashbacks.

Those who believe that power and control can make them safe, loved and lessen their fear of abandonment adopt the fight or narcissistic defense. They respond to their own hurt feelings with anger and use it to intimidate and shame others.

The flight defense is adopted by those who believe perfectionism will make them safe and loved.

They are workaholics or busyholics, engage in risky activities that give them an adrenaline rush, and are also prone to substance addictions.

The dissociative or freeze defense is adopted by those who reject all people as dangerous and isolate into a fantasy world to protect themselves. They escape by sleeping, daydreaming, wishing, TV, computer and video games and by using drugs to self-medicate.

The fawn or codependent defense is adopted by those who look for safety by taking care of others. They have trouble saying no, setting healthy boundaries and articulating their own needs. They are chronic caregivers, most often at their own expense.

Where to Look for Help:

For survivors, becoming aware of trauma-driven brain changes as well as these types of defenses is the beginning step to recovery. Another very important avenue to healing is getting the right diagnosis from the right psychotherapist. Preferably one who is trauma-certified and proficient in proven techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

EMDR therapy shows that the mind can heal from psychological trauma just as the body heals from physical trauma. EMDR is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense as an effective treatment for PTSD and Complex PTSD.

Another effective healing tool is EFT, Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as “Tapping.” EFT is based on mind/body medicine and the Chinese meridian system that forms the basis for acupuncture, acupressure, and other energy healing techniques.       

Do you know of any other healing techniques to treat PTSD and/or complex PTSD that did not get mentioned above? If so, please share them with us in the comments section below!

– Mary




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