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Unpacking Complex Trauma: Understanding, Recognizing, and Treating

Updated: Mar 22


Healing from Complex Trauma: Understanding, Recognizing, and Treating

The word ‘trauma’ is often thrown around a lot today on social media and the news, but what is it really?


Complex trauma is a pervasive issue affecting countless individuals, often silently shaping their lives for years. While it may not receive as much attention as other forms of trauma, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex trauma is a significant mental health concern that can impact individuals throughout their life. In this blog, we will explore what complex trauma is, how it manifests in adulthood, common signs and signals, and why it's crucial to seek treatment. We'll also highlight the effectiveness of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) as a vital treatment modality for complex trauma.


What is Complex Trauma?


Complex trauma, also known as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), results from prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often during childhood or adolescence. Unlike a single traumatic incident, such as a car accident or a natural disaster, complex trauma involves repeated or chronic experiences of abuse, neglect, or other forms of violence. Many times, these events went on for extended periods of time and were never acknowledged in childhood.  Child abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, long-term caregiving instability, addicted or narcissistic parents, and living in high conflict or war zones can all contribute to complex trauma. These experiences can severely impact a person's emotional and psychological well-being.  The impressions left on them generally leave clients with a lack of security and general angst.


Complex trauma can manifest in various ways in adulthood, affecting every aspect of a person's life. Some common signs and symptoms include:


1. Emotional Dysregulation: Individuals with complex trauma may struggle to manage their emotions, experiencing intense mood swings, anger, and sadness.  Their nervous system is easily “hijacked” and they are prone to strong emotional responses.


2. Relationship Difficulties: People living with complex trauma may find it challenging to trust others, establish healthy boundaries, or maintain stable, satisfying relationships. Individuals may also struggle to form and maintain healthy relationships due to trust issues, emotional detachment, and fear of abandonment.


3. Self-Esteem Issues & Feelings of Guilt: Complex trauma often leads to low self-esteem, feelings of shame, and a persistent sense of worthlessness.  Individuals may experience persistent negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves.  Others may show chronic feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame.


4. Dissociation: People with complex trauma may disconnect from reality as a coping mechanism, experiencing episodes of depersonalization or derealization.


5.  Avoidance: Avoid reminders of the trauma, including people, places, or situations that trigger distressing memories.


6. Flashbacks and Nightmares: Similar to PTSD, complex trauma survivors may experience intrusive memories, nightmares, or flashbacks related to their traumatic experiences.  Many often experience recurrent, distressing memories or dreams related to their traumatic events.  


7.  Difficulties Concentrating:  Many individuals with complex trauma have a very activated nervous system that makes it difficult for them to concentrate. This can make the individual hypervigilant and have an exaggerated startle response.


Complex trauma is more common than many people realize. Studies suggest that a significant portion of the population has experienced some form of trauma during their lifetime, with a subset developing complex trauma. The prevalence of complex trauma underscores the need for awareness and effective treatment options.


 

The Importance of Treating Complex Trauma


Recognizing and addressing complex trauma is crucial for individuals to regain control of their lives and find healing. Seeking treatment can lead to improved emotional well-being, healthier relationships, and a greater sense of self-worth. The use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Mindfulness-based practices are all helpful forms of treatment when addressing complex trauma.  Another highly effective treatment approach for complex trauma is EMDR.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique designed to help individuals process traumatic memories and reduce their emotional impact. EMDR involves a structured eight-phase approach, including assessment, preparation, desensitization, installation, and body scan. The most basic description of EMDR involves moving your eyes or "tapping" on either side of your body in a specific and guided way while working with your clinician to process traumatic memories. 


When a trauma occurs, it seems to get locked in the nervous system with the original pictures, sounds, thoughts, and feelings that went on at the time of the event. The eye movements or other bilateral stimulation (BLS) we use in EMDR seem to unlock the nervous system and allow the mind and body to process the experience. Similar to what occurs in REM or dream sleep, the BLS helps to process the unconscious material.  It is important to remember that it is your own brain that will be doing the healing and that you are the one in control during an EMDR session.


At our practice, we understand the importance of specialized treatment for complex trauma. We have several clinicians trained in EMDR, and dedicated to helping individuals heal from complex trauma. EMDR can be a transformative therapy, allowing clients to reprocess traumatic memories, develop healthier coping strategies, and build resilience.


 

Complex trauma is a challenging but treatable condition that affects many individuals. Recognizing the signs and seeking help are crucial steps toward healing and recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with complex trauma, don't hesitate to reach out to professionals trained in EMDR and trauma-informed care. There is hope, and with the right support, healing is possible.


Written by our Director, Gordon Gooding, LCSW along with Liana Ross, LMHC











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