How can I get help and support for complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD)?
Note: NAMI volunteers are not medical or mental health professionals, and we cannot offer medical or mental health advice. The material outlined below is informational, and we hope that it helps provide guidance toward getting support.
Note: Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is not currently recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR). C-PTSD is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). If you believe you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, consider exploring your diagnosis and treatment options with a mental healthcare professional.
If you have witnessed or experienced several traumatic events in the past, you may be wondering what impact these events still have on your mental health and well-being today. You are not alone. Throughout the past few decades, our understanding of trauma and its everyday impact on people's lives has grown tremendously. There's still a lot to learn, but what we do know is that trauma can strongly influence your psychological and emotional well-being, your physical health, and the decisions you make each day. We also know that your traumatic experiences do not have to define you. By learning more about trauma, understanding how it shows up in your day-to-day life, and asking for the help you need, you can find support and recovery as a survivor of complex trauma.
How is C-PTSD different from PTSD?
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after someone experiences repeated and/or prolonged traumatic events, especially when those events involve being hurt, threatened, or abused. C-PTSD is most common for people who have been harmed by someone they expect to be caring and supportive, like a parent. Experiencing traumatic events over a long period of time can impact someone differently than it would if they experienced just one traumatic event, such as a violent attack or serious car accident. This is what makes C-PTSD different from PTSD.
People with complex post-traumatic stress disorder experience symptoms of traditional PTSD, which include:
- Re-experiencing symptoms: nightmares, flashbacks, or unwanted memories of the traumatic event(s)
- Avoidance symptoms: avoidance of triggers, reminders, emotions, or thoughts related to the traumatic event(s)
- Arousal symptoms: hypervigilance, irritability, heightened startle response, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating
Along with the traditional symptoms of PTSD, people with C-PTSD experience symptoms that affect their self-perception, relationships, and ability to regulate emotions. These symptoms affect the lives of people with C-PTSD in many ways, including:
- Problems with self-identity: feeling different from others, difficulty defining who you are or what you need
- Lack of self-acceptance: feelings of worthlessness, shame or guilt, self-hatred, feeling as if you are bad or damaged
- Extreme emotion sand coping: anger, sadness, extreme mood swings, persistent feelings of emptiness, risky and impulsive behavior, suicidality, extreme distracting or coping mechanisms like substance use, conflict avoidance, or workaholism
- Changes in consciousness: gaps in memory, lacking memories of traumatic event(s), out of body feelings (dissociation), feeling like the world around you isn’t real (derealization)
- Problems with relationships: difficulty trusting others, avoiding relationships, people-pleasing, hoping to be saved or rescued by partner, inability to form secure attachments
- Changed systems of meaning: being defensive or protective of the person who perpetrated the trauma, believing that the world is bad and unsafe, normalization of suffering and despair
- Physical health or body-related concerns: eating disorders, difficulty following medical advice or making positive health decisions, neglecting hygiene, inability to identify emotional experiences or physical sensations in the body
Where can I learn more about different types of traumas?
You may explore the following webpages to learn more about different types of traumas including chronic trauma, complex trauma, childhood trauma, and intergenerational trauma, all of which are commonly related to C-PTSD.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network - Trauma Types
- Psychology Today - Trauma
- VeryWell Mind – Intergenerational Trauma
Where can I learn more about C-PTSD, treatment, and support?
- NAMI’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder webpage contains information about treatment and recovery support for PTSD, many of which apply to C-PTSD as well.
- Beauty After Bruises is a non-profit organization providing information, resources, and guidance to individuals with C-PTSD and/or trauma-related dissociative disorders. They also offer financial assistance to help connect people with treatment and support.
- Complextrauma.org contains a glossary of terms related to complex trauma and a curated collection of books, videos, and articles to educate individuals and professionals about complex trauma and effective treatments for those with C-PTSD.
- International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation provides facts sheets, webinars and other resources on trauma and dissociation, as well as a Find a Therapist/Facility locator.
- The Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing International Association offers a “Find an EMDR Therapist” locator to find clinicians trained in the use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a psychotherapy treatment that helps people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences, including C-PTSD.
- The US Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD website provides resources and information on understanding PTSD, treatment options, and self-help resources. They also have a Complex PTSD webpage that explains the history of the condition, symptoms, and common treatments for C-PTSD.
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