What is Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma, a term embraced in the field of traumatic stress, encompasses the enduring impact of multiple, chronic, and interpersonal adversities that often initiate in early childhood within the child’s caregiving system. Bessel van der Kolk, trauma expert, and author of The Body Keeps the Score, emphasises trauma’s scope, covering physical, emotional, and educational abandonment, as well as neglect and abuse during formative years.
The groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente sheds light on the prevalence of trauma. Approximately 61% of adults have experienced at least one ACE, and 1 in 6 adults has encountered four or more different ACEs. These include abandonment, neglect, and abuse in various forms (emotional, cultural, physical, sexual, and spiritual), as well as challenging family dynamics, substance abuse, parental divorce, and other adverse conditions.
Complex trauma, as underscored by the Blue Knot Foundation, often stems unintentionally from parents with their own trauma history, perpetuating ongoing cycles of repetitive trauma (transgenerational trauma). This results in challenges such as an inability to regulate emotions and establish a sense of safety in one’s own body and in the world.
Psychotherapist and author, Pete Walker, introduces Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) as a heightened form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He accentuates the enduring impact of prolonged and repeated trauma, particularly in the realm of interpersonal relationships, encompassing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse and neglect. Walker identifies C-PTSD by its hallmarks—struggles with emotional regulation, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, distorted self-perception, and an overarching negative impact on identity.
A recurring theme in many of these experiences is a lack of attunement and unavailability to the child’s feelings and needs by primary caregivers. This deficiency can lead to attachment injuries, emotional dysregulation, and a fundamental lack of trust that needs will be met. Furthermore, it may involve a child’s needs being eclipsed by primary caregivers’ own needs, resulting in narcissistic wounding.
Understanding the complexities of complex trauma necessitates recognising its diverse manifestations and exploring the roots of its impact. Next we will explore the consequences of complex trauma, shedding light on the challenges individuals face.
The Consequences of Complex Trauma
Trauma significantly interferes with neurobiological development, as highlighted by van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. Early experiences, occurring in the context of a developing brain, intertwine neural development and social interaction. Changes in the brain and nervous system can mimic symptoms of ADHD. Trauma Warriors Trauma Psychotherapist, Andrea Szász, wrote about this in Is it ADHD or nervous system dysregulation?
The National Institute of Mental Health (USA) says that complex trauma often results in lasting mental and physical effects.
The consequences of complex trauma extend to a deep sense of shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. Individuals may experience dissociative and somatic symptoms, relying on external cues rather than internal ones.
Seubert & Virdi (2019) propose that trauma gives rise to excruciatingly painful and negative stories over time, such as ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘There is something wrong with me’, or ‘I’m unlovable.’
Coping mechanisms for dealing with psychic and somatic pain associated with trauma can take various forms, including co-dependent relationships, addiction, disordered eating, and self-harm. These self-destructive and self protective behaviours are prevalent in those who have suffered trauma.
In essence, understanding complex trauma involves acknowledging its diverse manifestations, exploring the roots of its impact, and recognising the coping mechanisms individuals adopt in response to their pain. This comprehensive insight delves into the complexities of emotional healing, emphasising the intertwined nature of neural development and social interaction in the context of traumatic experiences.
Assessing for Trauma
In essence, complex trauma, rooted in childhood relational and interpersonal wounding leads to an intricate web of coping mechanisms, underscoring the necessity for a thorough trauma-informed assessment in evaluating challenges like addiction, disordered eating, anxiety, depression, suicidality, and ADHD.
For more information the best therapies for complex trauma read more here.