What is complex trauma and how can therapy help? [Benefits of Trauma-Specific Therapies]

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Most of us have experienced some type of trauma during our lives. According to the data of the Sidran Institute, about 70% of US adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. While some people have adaptive coping mechanisms to actively resolve trauma without clinical intervention, others are deeply impacted by the event(s) and can struggle for years to feel like themselves again. In particular, about 20% of people who experience trauma develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Even worse — some people even develop additional clusters of symptoms that characterize C-PTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Complex trauma is relatively rare compared to PTSD and has even more severe effects on one’s mental health. Usually, it’s a long-lasting trauma, the effects of which do not just stay in the past but continue to affect life in the present moment as well. A strong support system and effective professional mental health treatments are crucial for overcoming complex trauma.

In this article, we’ll discuss what is meant by “complex trauma” and the benefits of trauma-specific therapies for this unfortunate grouping of mental health symptoms.

What is Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma is a condition that comes from traumatic events that repeatedly occur as a result of physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, or spiritual circumstances. It’s usually developed as a result of multiple traumatic events or prolonged abuse, either in childhood or adulthood. The exposure to these events continues for the long term, affecting the nervous system in incredibly negative and life-changing ways.

Most of the time, the term “complex trauma” is used to define the additional symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as difficulty regulating emotions, a distorted sense of self, or changes in consciousness. Considering that trauma often has an interpersonal nature, people who experience complex trauma often have problems developing or maintaining healthy relationships.

The main difference between trauma and complex trauma is that an event we call “traumatic” usually happens as a result of a single traumatic incident. While single-event trauma also leads to harmful mental health consequences and has the potential of developing into disorders such as PTSD (e.g., McKay et al., 2021), the results of complex trauma are much more severe. In particular, complex trauma becomes the “new normal” for the body and the mind and often an individual cannot manage to restore balance in their nervous system or mind and feel normal; instead they are often stuck in various forms of  “survival mode” as traumatic events continue to happen in their lives. In other situations, the ongoing trauma may also be called “toxic chronic stress.” For years and years afterwards, an individual may suffer from the time that they spent in a chronically stressful and toxic environment.

Therefore, diagnosing C-PTSD is a complicated process. Even though this condition significantly differs from regular PTSD, psychologists can’t rely on specific criteria while diagnosing it because it is not yet recognized as a diagnosis in the DSM-5-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

On the other hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) already recognizes complex trauma as a separate psychiatric disorder in the ICD-11 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) (Rosenfield et al., 2018).

What Are the Symptoms of Complex Trauma?

People who experience complex trauma also have the symptoms of PTSD as well as the additional symptoms of C-PTSD. For example, similar to PTSD, complex trauma is also characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks
  • Changes in mood
  • Avoiding certain situations that trigger traumatic events
  • Numbness
  • Hyperarousal
  • Somatic symptoms such as:
    • Physical pain
    • Increased heart rate
    • Blurred vision
    • Dizziness
    • Sweating
    • Nausea
    • Trembling

In addition to PTSD symptoms, people who deal with complex trauma also experience the following symptoms related to both their affective and cognitive states:

  • Emotional dysregulation – Inability to regulate emotional reactions to certain environmental stimuli. This may result in aggression, risky behaviors, or self-harm.
  • Distorted perception – Having a negative self-image or distorted self-perception. People with complex trauma not only have negative thoughts about themselves but also distort the perception of an abuser which might result in repeated victimization.
  • Cognitive changes – Sometimes complex trauma is characterized by memory loss or attention problems.
  • Relationship challenges – Complex trauma often makes people feel empty and isolated. Besides, it can lead to trust issues, resulting in unhealthy relationships or difficulties developing new social connections.
  • Dissociation – Being disconnected from themselves and the environment. Dissociative symptoms can be represented in depersonalization, derealisation, disorganization, and disorientation from time/place.
  • Suicidal thoughts – Complex trauma often causes people think about intentionally taking their own lives.

How Can Therapy Help You Heal from Complex Trauma

Regardless of which type of therapy is used for complex trauma, the basic purpose of receiving psychological treatment is to help individuals understand and integrate traumatic events in their lives and heal. The aim of the therapy isn’t to make people forget their recurring traumatic memories. Instead, therapists try to help them accept their memories, process them and reduce their impact on their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Research findings state that specific interventions have a positive effect on complex trauma and allow individuals who struggle with C-PTSD to reduce the impact of the symptoms and heal. For example, according to a 2021 study, phase-based interventions that facilitate reintegration enhance treatment for C-PTSD (Purnell et al., 2021).

An Australian study that also used a phase-based approach that combined 10 sessions of individual therapy with 10 sessions of group therapy had significant mental health benefits for individuals with complex trauma experiences (de Boer et al., 2021).

Therefore, therapy can help people who struggle with complex trauma to normalize their responses and develop specific coping mechanisms to regulate their emotions and manage responses after getting away from the cause of the traumatic events.

Trauma-Specific Therapies for Complex Trauma

Trauma-specific therapies are approaches that are focused on traumatic experiences and aim to help clients recognize and understand how traumatic events affect their mental and emotional well-being. There are specific types of trauma-focused therapies that can reduce the symptoms of complex trauma:

  • EMDR Therapy – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is a specific integrative approach for trauma treatment. It’s based on bilateral eye movements and aims to help clients process trauma through eye movements. When someone has finished EMDR therapy, memories of events that once caused significant distress will eventually not affect the person as much–allowing them to function optimally.
  • Trauma-focused CBT – TF-CBT aims to resolve a wide range of emotional and behavioral difficulties associated with complex trauma experiences. Studies have demonstrated that this trauma-specific treatment can effectively reduce the symptoms of trauma (Ramirez de Arellano et al., 2014)
  • Somatic Experiencing Therapy – Since complex trauma leads to somatic symptoms as well, this type of therapy focuses on the way trauma physically affects the body. Studies have proven the effectiveness of somatic therapy for PTSD (Brom et al., 2017).
  • Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – It’s an empirically validated intervention, based on secular mindfulness practices. MBCT therapists aim to help clients understand how trauma affects the person as a whole, while developing long-term coping strategies for feeling better.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, trauma-specific therapies effectively reduce the symptoms of complex trauma and help people understand their trauma-related emotions, integrate past events into the past so that they can live their daily life, and heal.

If you or your loved one is struggling with the symptoms of complex trauma, our professional therapists at the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids can help you treat trauma based on modern, empirically-proven clinical therapies. During therapy sessions, you’ll understand the impact of traumatic events on your psychological well-being and develop adaptive coping strategies to deal with them.

So, don’t hesitate to reach out to our licensed counselors at Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI or book a consultation online to find out whether you require professional assistance and which type of trauma-specific therapy is more suitable to your needs.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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