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What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)?

You’ve likely heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, but what is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? CPTSD is a mental health condition that can occur when a person is exposed to traumatic events or situations over a long period of time; this can include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, childhood neglect or abandonment, or exposure to violence in the home or other environments.

What is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

CPTSD and PTSD are similar, but the main difference is that CPTSD is a result of long-term exposure to trauma, whereas PTSD is usually thought to stem from shorter term trauma. People with PTSD and CPTSD also have similar symptoms, but those with CPTSD may experience some additional effects.

What are the symptoms of CPTSD?

The symptoms of CPTSD are varied, and can often be confused with other disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and even Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). People with CPTSD often spend a lot of time in a fight or flight state, resulting in feelings of panic and anxiety; exposure to reminders of trauma, which can happen with or without a person’s awareness, can lead to flashbacks and symptoms like:

- Difficulty regulating emotions

- Trouble with identity or sense of self

- Difficulty feeling safe or trusting others, which often leads to relationship issues

- Feelings of helplessness and shame

- Flashbacks, which can be visual, emotional, or somatic (in the body)

- Nausea and other digestive issues

- Extreme pain without any obvious cause

- Palpitations and tremors

- Chronic fatigue

- Insomnia and sleep disruption

- Hyper-vigilance. Also called “muscle armouring”, which can lead to chronic tension and pain

- Persistent, negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world

How is CPTSD diagnosed and treated?

There is no test for diagnosing CPTSD. If you are reading this, you may already have identified some of the symptoms in yourself or someone else and are looking for answers. A therapist or other health care provider can listen to your symptoms, and help you identify if they are a result of trauma that you’ve experienced. From there, a treatment plan can be made to help you heal.

There are a number of treatments that can help those with CPTSD. Psychotherapy, or a combination of medications such as anti-depressants and therapy have shown to be helpful in the treatment of CPTSD. Specifically, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have been shown to help those suffering from CPTSD. Another form of therapy, called Expressive Arts Therapy, can be helpful for restoring the processes that have been disrupted by trauma, and regulating the stress reactions in the body.

Also, participating in healthy relationships can be one of the best ways to let your brain and body know that people can be safe, and yes, your relationship with your therapist counts! Sometimes a therapist may be the first safe person in someone’s life, so if you feel like you don’t have a healthy relationship or safe person to rely on, don’t be discouraged. Experiencing prolonged trauma, such as the kind that can result in developing CPTSD, can lead you to similar people and relationships over and over, because that’s what feels normal to you. By seeking help from a therapist, you can start to recognize what is happening in your mind and body, and begin to break that cycle.

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