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Let's Talk About Complex Trauma

Updated: May 21, 2022

Did you suffer trauma in childhood? Is what you experienced trauma (so many do not know if it is or isn't)? Do you find yourself struggling to feel as if you belong in this world? Is your sense of self and safety compromised? Is there this constant buzz that doesn't calm down and keeps you on edge? Are you taking medications that don't seem to work and make you feel even worse? Do you feel like you will never get over whatever it is that is going on with you?

While this blog post is not any form of medical advice or mental health diagnosis or treatment, we are going to talk about complex trauma. I will define what it is, how it affects those who suffer from it and help you decide if you need to seek professional help and talk to your doctor about it.

Trigger Warning: We will be discussing childhood trauma so please pay close attention to your nervous system and do what is necessary to take care of yourself. It is ok to stop reading if you become triggered and need to step away.

What is Complex Trauma? defines complex trauma as "the exposure to multiple, often interrelated forms of traumatic experiences AND the difficulties that arise as a result of adapting to or surviving these experiences." When we look at this definition of complex trauma we realize that you could have suffered not just one trauma but multiple traumas and it was often within the family system. This is why it is called complex trauma. There are myriad ways it impacts you on every level of your being as well.

If you were the victim of sexual abuse, that can often be accompanied by physical, verbal, and emotional abuse (any of these can be experienced together, there is no particular order). Neglect is often an overlooked and heavily traumatic experience as well. Add to that the compounded suffering of being retaliated against if you try to protest the ill-treatment and you have a toxic soup that you are bathed in throughout the formative years of your life. It affects you on every level of your being.

Sadly, not all mental health professionals or healthcare providers recognize the symptoms of trauma. Children can have a very hard time articulating what is happening to them. They are often labeled as "bad", "hard-headed", "troublemaker', "dumb", "stupid", and many other labels that follow them their entire lives. They are medicated so that they will be docile and easy for adults to handle. They are never given the proper tools to heal from what happened to them. It does not just go away, it follows them into adulthood where they have to navigate life from the perspective of that wounded child.

I would also like to note that adults can develop complex trauma who have experienced domestic violence, sex trafficking, imprisonment, and other types of long-standing, repeated, and varying traumas.

What Happened to You?

So many times in our society we ask the question, what's wrong with you when children and adults have behavioral patterns that are considered to be disruptive and not "normal". Imagine living all of your formative years in dysfunction and abuse from the ones who were supposed to protect and cherish you. Who do you run to when mom or dad is the imminent threat? You run inward and turn all of that pain onto yourself.

Children are dependent on their caregivers for survival. When mom and dad are the ones threatening that survival the child does not accept that mom and dad are bad...they turn that inward and say that they must be bad or mom and dad would not treat them this way. I ask my clients what happened to them because trauma is more common than we know. The numbers of reported cases are staggering. Can you imagine what goes unreported due to shame?

Some Statistics for You has an article that speaks to the trends of mental health to watch. In it, we find these stats for trauma: Nearly 61% of adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study. Around 1 in 6 adults endure four or more traumatic events during childhood, with women and people from minoritized communities facing a greater risk. Isn't that an astounding number? These are reported experiences. Imagine those who don't come forward and you can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who have to deal with trauma.

The Complexity of Complex Trauma

This is a very complicated topic that is not something that you can fully understand in one blog post. This post is designed to make a beginning of understanding the struggles that folks who have been diagnosed with Complex Trauma face. It is not as simple as "Stop worrying", "It's all in your head", "it's not that serious", "well just pray about it", and "you're overreacting/underreacting". Trauma lives in the body until it can be released in a safe environment. The best thing you can do to help someone who has this diagnosis is to be a safe and soft place for them to land. Ask them what they need and if they tell you they don't know just sit with them.

As a survivor of complex trauma, I can tell you that this is a daily walk to function as a productive member of society. I have good times when my symptoms are well under my control and then I have weeks where I cannot get out of the emotional flashbacks I have. I have a toolkit that I pull from so that I can go to work and see my clients. I am one of the many faces of complex trauma. It is a roller coaster I would prefer not to be on but I am. I do my best to ride it and love the scared one who has no idea if the ride will make a stop to allow them to breathe for a minute. I can tell you this that it does eventually calm so that I can hop off the ride for a little bit and gather myself. My gathering looks different from everyone else's and I am truly ok with that. Find out what your gathering looks like. What works best for you? Try different things and then use them while they work, discard them when they no longer serve you. Keep trying, you will get there. One complex moment at a time.

In Support of Your Journey

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