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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Complex Trauma--It's Complicated

Updated: Apr 29, 2019

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma. “

The term "Complex Trauma" refers to multiple traumas, ongoing trauma, and especially trauma that occurred during childhood, as opposed to a single, traumatic incident. Complex Trauma also includes "Developmental or Relational Trauma"--when a child's caregivers are unable to physically or emotionally support and/or protect a child. This can happen when caregivers struggle with their own mental health, abuse substances, or are otherwise unavailable. Both types of Trauma are painful; one is not less important/impactful than the other. However, the experience and treatment for Acute, Single Incident and Complex Trauma are different. With Complex Trauma, it is likely that a person's post traumatic stress response has been activated for years, if not much of a person's life. They may not even identify as suffering with trauma-related symptoms.

Instead, they may struggle with what feels like completely disconnected symptoms, including:

  • Depression and self-contempt

  • Anxiety and fear of others

  • Shame

  • Emotional/physical numbing

  • Tumultuous relationships: fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment, fear of being alone, contempt for their partners

People who have experienced multiple traumas may additionally experience confusing/unrealistic beliefs:

  • Feeling unsafe in safe situations, or feel safe in unsafe situations

  • Struggling to trust in others ("I can't trust/depend on anyone")

  • Idealizing an abuser ("They hurt me, but they love me")

  • Internalizing an abuser (I'll hurt them/myself before they can hurt me")

  • Believing that they, themselves are unlovable, worthless, undeserving or bad

Why Therapy for Complex Trauma Can be Especially Difficult, But Also Especially Rewarding...

As traumatic stress expert Bessel Van Der Kolk said, relationships are the single most important resource in preventing and healing from trauma. Because Complex Trauma can erode our ability to trust others, and can leave us believing that we somehow don't deserve to feel better, therapy can be especially difficult for survivors.

Please know that these kinds of thoughts are the residue of Complex Trauma. They are NOT truth. They are often a way that your mind developed to protect yourself. It's easier for children to be angry and disappointed with themselves than it is to feel those ways about someone you literally depend on for love and life. These kind of beliefs may have helped you then, but now they are the causing the harm. If you have suffered through Complex Trauma, the work in therapy is re-organizing your central nervous system so that it is more balanced (learning mindfulness techniques) as well as talking about these beliefs and feelings with your therapist as they come up.

At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, you will NOT be judged. You can talk about these kinds of feelings and thoughts freely. I will not take them personally, these beliefs will not hurt me. You do not need to worry about me, you do not need to worry that you will somehow fall apart. Therapy is SAFE and we are both strong, resilient beings. The first steps will be difficult, but will be worth it. Because the truth is, you are worth it.

Hope for Trauma Recovery


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