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What Is Complex PTSD From Childhood Trauma? 

What Is Complex PTSD From Childhood Trauma?

Amidst messy bedsheets and pitch-black darkness, the actor on our TV screen sits up, gasping for air with his forehead glistening in sweat. His nightmare hinted at battlefield explosions and desperate yells. The audience immediately assumes that 1) he was in the military and 2) he has PTSD. But movies only show us one version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They tend to ignore its dangerous, long-lasting cousin, Complex PTSD. 

What Is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event, such as a war or domestic violence. Adjusting to terrifying events can be difficult. It takes time to transition back to daily routine. But if symptoms worsen, stick around for months to years, and interfere with daily tasks, PTSD is the root cause. 

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares. Those experiencing PTSD avoid triggering situations or environments, feel negative about themselves and the people around them, and face physical changes such as higher irritability or insomnia. Individuals with PTSD may have an increased risk of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. 

To decrease the impact of PTSD, an individual would work with a health professional on appropriate treatment. This may include psychotherapy, medication, and coping mechanisms. But if PTSD persists and we find a longer-lasting, psychological event tied to the disorder, the individual may be experiencing Complex PTSD. 

What Is Complex PTSD & How Is It Different?

Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) functions like PTSD, with the differentiating factor being the root cause: childhood. Those with C-PTSD experience additional symptoms from those listed for PTSD. 


Unlike PTSD, which usually stems from an isolated event, C-PTSD comes from long periods of trauma that have repeated over months or years. Childhood is a critical period for trauma because events embed themselves into development. Children have a higher risk of developing C-PTSD if they experienced abuse, neglect, domestic violence, genocide, torture, and slavery. In all these situations, the child is under the control of an authority figure, with no option to escape. 

Does PTSD only affect veterans? In this article we explore Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and it's connection to childhood trauma.

It’s All In Your Head

On a neurobiological level, C-PTSD rewires how the brain processes memories and emotions. Our amygdala triggers a “fight or flight” response when threatened, increasing heart rate and stress levels. It shuts down the thinking part of our brain to decide on a response, and for children with C-PTSD, this is where their memories get “stuck.” Instead of the event moving to the cortex to process a regulated response, those memories stay in the implicit memory (emotions) of the amygdala. When that child grows into an adult with C-PTSD, they experience a flashback and relive their trauma. Their amygdala remembers how that trauma felt instead of contextualizing what happened. This leads to the symptoms C-PTSD develops.  

Symptoms Of Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD overlaps with PTSD symptoms, such as avoiding triggers, being on constant high alert, difficulty concentrating, and distrust in self and others. People that experience Complex PTSD also find themselves:

  • Unable to control their emotions
  • Perceive themselves negatively
  • Have a difficult time maintaining relationships
  • Detach from their trauma
  • Distrust systems of meaning such as beliefs, values, faith, and hope

These prolonged systems impact the person’s relationship with themselves and their environment. Many of these symptoms go unchecked, as C-PTSD is often misdiagnosed for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Additionally, the DSM-5, the leading manual of psychological disorders, doesn’t recognize C-PTSD as a separate disorder from PTSD. Whereas the World Health Organization recognizes C-PTSD in the ICD, the International Classification of Diseases. 

Support And Treatment For Complex PTSD

The risk of C-PTSD increases during the vulnerable childhood age. While the brain develops and trauma occurs, those emotions embed in the amygdala. Think of it like building a foundation with bricks. Each brick is where it’s supposed to be, but if you add a few cinder blocks to the mix, the building won’t look exactly as planned. Instead, it’s at-risk of leaning or looking mismatched. Since the blocks integrated so early in the process, it’s difficult to just “take them out” without destroying the whole building. 

But that doesn’t mean healing isn’t possible. Treatment for C-PTSD includes:

  • Medication: although prescribed medication may not banish C-PTSD, certain drugs ease symptoms such as depression and anxiety
  • Psychotherapy: There are many psychotherapy methods, the two most popular being Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). CBT changes how a person perceives their environment. EMDR uses eye movements to recalibrate how an individual remembers a traumatic event. 

Other Coping Methods

  • Finding Support: Leaning on a trustworthy support system is key for treatment. Working with patience, care, and a lot of love helps with many of the symptoms.
  • Mindfulness: Learning to be present in the current moment helps decrease intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. It also promotes appreciation for the present. 
  • Writing it down: Writing out thoughts and feelings not only keeps a record, but helps understand—and accept—Complex PTSD. Acceptance is a step towards healing.

Whether you or someone you know experiences Complex PTSD, know that it’s never too late to seek help. Addressing our inner child moves in the right direction to complete growth, self-love, and healing. Learn more about it through your own research and seek assistance from a licensed medical professional.

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