Many people experience difficulties that stem from diverse types of trauma without even realizing what causes trauma and what kind of effect it can have on one’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being. For example, consequences of trauma, particularly a complex one, can interfere with your ability to form healthy relationships with people or damage existing relationships with your family, partner, or close friends.
Trauma develops after experiencing a highly distressing experience. In such situations, both your mind and body get overwhelmed with fear which causes the “flight, fight, or freeze” response. This is the way your body faces any perceived danger, and it’s also your brain’s way of preparing for a physical reaction to it.
What Does Complex Trauma Represent?
Complex trauma often stems from childhood or early life traumatic events that occur for an extended period of time. It’s usually caused by a series of traumatic events rather than a single one. In many cases, those events occur during longer periods: months, years, and sometimes they even spread through several generations of a single family.
The problem for people dealing with complex trauma is that the memories of the traumatic events don’t stay in the past. If the distress experienced was severely damaging, it could cause the body and the brain to react in the same way, causing identical emotions and reactions to get triggered even in situations that don’t objectively present a serious threat.
This happens because complex trauma profoundly impacts your nervous system. When a traumatic experience happens, the limbic system in the brain activates. This set of structures in your brain is involved in emotional responses, memory, and arousal. It is particularly important when it comes to behavior necessary for survival.
What Is The Difference Between Trauma And Complex Trauma?
Typically, after a traumatic event has passed, stress hormones return to normal levels, and flight, fight, or freeze mode shuts down. The danger is gone, emotions calm down, and cognitive functions can return to normal. However, sometimes this doesn’t happen, and some people’s “survival” mode becomes their normal state. If a person is unable to return to a usual, emotionally balanced state, this often points to complex trauma.
This means that the limbic system stays continuously engaged long after the traumatic event has passed. As a result, both the brain and body suffer the consequences of this coping mechanism meant to keep you safe in objectively dangerous situations. These lasting effects are what make the trauma complex.
According to psychiatrists, complex trauma is similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and usually has the same or similar symptoms. Some of the signs that can help you recognize it are:
- Actively avoiding places, people, or situations that remind you of traumatic events.
- Memory problems.
- Hyperarousal, being constantly on edge or alert.
- Trouble sleeping or having nightmares.
What Are Examples Of Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma commonly stems from childhood experiences, yet it’s not unusual for it to form in adulthood as well. It can emerge from any situation that causes a continuous sense of fear, helplessness, and powerlessness to defend yourself or escape the situation. If these feelings and fears go unaddressed and unresolved, they may become a permanent cause of problems in partner relationships, friendships, and family relations.
Some of the most frequent traumatic experiences that cause lasting damage to one’s emotional well-being and mental health can be caused by events like:
- Childhood neglect, abandonment, or abuse.
- Taking on adult roles as a child.
- Sexual abuse.
- Physical or emotional abuse.
- Medical trauma or abuse.
- Torture, kidnapping, trafficking, being held captive.
- Wars, civil unrest areas, genocide campaigns.
Childhood trauma is a particularly severe cause of complex trauma because it starts before the individual’s brain has had a chance to develop fully. Children don’t have defense mechanisms and the ability to think things through rationally. Instead, they are driven by emotions, and if those emotions are fear and distress, their worldview can be permanently distorted. As a result, all relationships become viewed as unstable and people as unreliable.
What Does Complex Trauma Do To A Person?
Every trauma leaves its mark on a person. However, what does being traumatized mean? Not knowing this makes it challenging to recognize the signs and identify the effects it has on their lives. In addition, experiencing complex trauma can leave grave consequences that may interfere with your daily functioning and relationships with others and yourself.
Complex trauma can:
- Make it hard to manage your emotions. This includes identifying, expressing, and controlling emotions or becoming easily overwhelmed. Stress reactions are common, as well as anger, fear, and anxiety. Not knowing how to cope with these feelings can lead to depression.
- Cause relationship problems due to attachment and trust issues. Some might feel that people, in general, are untrustworthy and unreliable, even dangerous. It’s not uncommon to also have issues with authority figures like teachers or police officers.
- Influence your physical health, even in the long term. Unfortunately, complex trauma can cause chronic illnesses like heart conditions, cancer, or early death, partly due to risky behavior.
- Change one’s behavior and cause intense reactions. Affected individuals might be unable to calm down even when there’s no significant threat. Instead, they may act impulsively and unpredictably. High-risk behaviors are also common, like illegal activities, substance use, unsafe sexual conduct, or even self-harm.
- Influence cognitive and problem-solving abilities. People may have trouble thinking clearly and rationally or lack the capacity to calmly think things through when faced with a problem or difficulty.
- Lead to memory problems. Some people can even completely forget the traumatic experiences that happened to them or keep having gaps in memory or personal history.
- Create a distorted sense of self and poor self-image. People may feel worthless and blame themselves for the trauma they experienced. They might feel shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
- Cause a person to have no sense of meaning and value, feel hopeless, have no sense of control, and have negative expectations.
- Cause depersonalization or dissociation. This means feeling disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, or body. For example, people may feel like they’re in a dream or otherwise unreal or altered state.
- Cause derealization, feeling detached from your surroundings.
- Influence the immune system. Abnormal stress levels can cause the body to automatically respond to ordinary stress levels as it would to extreme stress and cause rapid breathing or heart racing in regular situations.
- Create permanent physical symptoms like an upset stomach or headaches.
How To Overcome Complex Trauma Through Individual Or Group Coaching
You might be experiencing emotional hardships that prevent you from having healthy relationships with other people. They could be causing constant unrest and crises in your romantic relationships as well. In that case, it might be a good idea to address the root cause of your problems.
However, no two people are the same, and you might feel like nobody can understand what you went through. This is why PIVOT offers personalized individual coaching sessions to help you regain your strength and the ability to form trusting relationships and healthy attachments. You can also take part in small group workshops. Hearing about other people’s experiences can help you realize that you’re not alone and that healing is possible. In addition, the guidance of our experienced Glass House coaches can help you regain a sense of stability and safety.