What is Complex PTSD?

What is Complex PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of anxiety that develops after someone experiences a traumatic event. People are diagnosed with complex PTSD (C-PTSD) when they’ve symptoms continue after months or years [1].

It can often be difficult for people with PTSD to let go of their traumatic event. No matter what your personal experience is – whether it be witnessing violent war acts or being a survivor of sexual abuse – there’s a large difficulty in simply forgetting this trauma. This remains true even for those who have undergone treatment.

In fact, out of the 7 to 8% of Americans who experience some form of PTSD, more than 90% will experience with C-PTSD [2].

Throughout this article, we’re going to explore C-PTSD and how it differs from PTSD. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

The Difference Between PTSD and C-PTSD

PTSD symptoms are often associated with short-lived traumatic events, such as a car accident or natural disaster. However, C-PTSD symptoms are better associated with long-lived traumatic events, such as prolonged sexual abuse, childhood abuse, or domestic abuse.

Though people struggling with C-PTSD may experience some PTSD symptoms, they’ll most likely also experience their own set of symptoms. These include [3]:

  • Avoidance of places, people, or situations that remind you of the traumatic experience.
  • Continuously in a state of high alert (hyperarousal).
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Dizziness.
  • Holding the conviction that the world is a dangerous, unforgiving place.
  • Loss of sense in yourself.
  • Nausea.
  • Re-experiencing the trauma, either through flashbacks of nightmares.
  • Startled by loud sounds.

Other Symptoms

Besides the above set of symptoms, people with C-PTSD may also have other symptoms that hit them on a more personal level. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Change in Perception – As mentioned, people with C-PTSD are prone to re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks and nightmares. In effect, other symptoms – such as avoidance – cause them to view the world differently. Many may end up losing trust in those around them or developing a negative view of the world.
  • Detachment – When someone goes through a traumatic experience, they may feel it’s a necessity to detach themselves from the emotions that came with this experience. Unfortunately, this means detaching themselves from natural emotions, such as fear and sadness. Furthermore, people with C-PTSD may also detach themselves from people, places, or situations that remind them of the experience.
  • Difficulty Regulating Emotions – When emotions get out of hand, they can often lead to other mental illnesses. People with C-PTSD may also experience depression, suicidal ideation, or another form of depression.
  • Negative Self-View – Through feelings such as helplessness, guilt, and shame, a person with C-PTSD may begin to look negatively upon themselves. Furthermore, they may view themselves as a difficulty for other people.
  • Relationship Problems – Due to all the symptoms mentioned above, it can be very difficult for someone with C-PTSD to develop a proper relationship with someone, whether this is romantic or personal. To top it off, there’s also the risk people with C-PTSD will develop unhealthy relationships.

Signs and Behavior

Any major change in personality can be a sign of mental illness taking over a person’s psychology. However, there are a number of specific signs concerning C-PTSD. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Developing a “people-pleaser” personality trait to avoid negative situations
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Feeling strongly emotional about minor events or situations
  • Self-harm

Of course, C-PTSD affects everyone differently and, therefore, not everyone is going to have the same signs.

However, whatever signs do develop, they are often a way for people to handle or forget about the trauma caused by their experience. In cases of people with PTSD, different behaviors should stop once the mental illness fades away. But in people with C-PTSD, these behaviors will become apart of their day-to-day life.

Treatment for C-PTSD

Since medical professionals are unable to offer people struggling with C-PTSD a proper diagnosis, treatment is done similarly to that of standard PTSD, through medication and psychotherapy [4].

The unfortunate truth is this limits what medical professionals can do in concerns to long-lasting PTSD symptoms. If you’ve been experiencing PTSD for months or years, it’s important you attempt to develop some treatment methods of your own (see below).

Though professional treatment is necessary, there’s a lot of self-work that must be done in order to overcome this mental illness.


Many of the medications prescribed for C-PTSD are similar to those prescribed for depression. The hope is that, alongside psychotherapy, these medications will reduce the symptoms a person feels.

These medications include [5]:

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft

Some people take these medications for a long period of time while others for a short period of time. With that in mind, it’s important to note, these medications can be addictive! It’s vital you don’t take any more of a dose than what your doctor recommends. Furthermore, you may want to seek out natural alternatives as many of these have fewer side effects and put you at less of a risk for addiction.

If you feel as though your medication is not helping, contact your doctor. Don’t get the notion that you have to take your medication in order to overcome C-PTSD.


Psychotherapies are talking sessions that either take place in one-on-one or group sessions. The purpose of these therapies is to give you an idea of your thought patterns, where negativities arise, and – through this – help you understand how to curb symptoms in your day-to-day life [6].

When it comes to C-PTSD specifically, your therapy is going to have you look back on your traumatic experience and reflect just how it has changed your perception and personality.

The most common forms of psychotherapy for C-PTSD are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

However, since people struggling with C-PTSD tend to have difficulty forgetting about their traumatic experience, they may also be asked to participate in another form of therapy.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Though not all doctors will recommend EMDR, it has been shown to help people with C-PTSD [7].

When assigned a therapist, you’ll be asked to recollect your traumatic experience. From there, your therapist will move a finger from side to side and you’ll be asked to follow it with your eyes. The purpose is to desensitize you from your traumatic memory.

The reason EMDR is recommended by all doctors is that it remains controversial in the medical realm. Furthermore, it doesn’t always help people facing C-PTSD.

What Can You Do?

As mentioned, though treatment is vital to overcoming C-PTSD, you’re going to need to help yourself along this journey. Without your participation, your C-PTSD is almost inevitable to continue.

Some things you can do when you’re not in treatment is finding a support group. By talking with other people who have gone through similar experiences, you will develop a better understanding of your own situation. Furthermore, you’re bound to make potentially life-long friends along the way.

It’s also important you develop some healthy habits to improve your day-to-day life. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Eating well and getting a good night’s sleep
  • Exercising
  • Making new friends
  • Talking with people who have fallen out of your life
  • Taking up new hobbies
  • Working or going to school

Remember, no matter what you do, it’s going to take time for you to recover from C-PTSD. Be patient and have some optimism. You aren’t alone in your battle. Many have and continue to be in your position and many do overcome this mental illness.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning C-PTSD and how to find proper treatment?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have further knowledge or personal experience with C-PTSD, we’d also love to hear from you.

We try to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources

[1] NIMH: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

[2] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Complex PTSD

[3] health direct: Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

[4] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: PTSD Treatment Basics

[5] American Psychological Association: Medications for PTSD

[6] NIMH: Psychotherapies

[7] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD

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