One of my specialties as a psychotherapist is helping survivors of childhood trauma. Childhood trauma is alarmingly common in the United States with nearly 60% of adults having experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), and 25% having experienced three or more. An ACE is a public health term for a potentially traumatic experience or event that occurs during a person’s childhood, including, but not limited to, poverty, divorce, mental illness, addiction, abuse, parental incarceration, and neighborhood crime. In fact, childhood trauma is so common in America that some experts are even calling for it be considered a public health crisis

Studies have shown that experiencing childhood trauma makes a person much more likely to suffer from addiction or mental illness later in life. It also significantly increases their risk of dying from at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death in America. At my psychotherapy practice in Austin, I help survivors of childhood trauma heal through talk therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), and other proven methodologies.

While many people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), less people have heard of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) — a newer diagnosis that pertains to individuals who have experienced prolonged trauma, often during childhood. In this blog post, I explore C-PTSD, including what differentiates it from PTSD, and how it can impact the life of those who live with  it. If you feel that you or a loved one are suffering with C-PTSD or PTSD, get in touch with my Austin behavioral health practice today. Living with mental illness can be devastating for both the survivor and those who love them, but recovery is possible. Schedule an appointment now to learn what help is available.

PTSD vs. C-PTSD

The diagnosis of PTSD is usually applied to individuals who have experienced a single traumatic event in their lives, such as a car accident, assault, natural disaster, or going to war. C-PTSD, on the other hand, refers to surviving an ongoing experience of severe, repetitive trauma. This usually occurs during the person’s childhood and is frequently associated with chronic abuse or neglect. Survivors of prolonged hostage or kidnapping situations, human trafficking, and war also often suffer from C-PTSD. Since C-PTSD is a relatively new diagnosis, and since childhood trauma, including childhood abuse, is alarmingly common in the United States, many more people live with this debilitating condition than are currently aware of it. In fact, C-PTSD is still not considered to be an official diagnosis within the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), despite many health professionals recognizing it as a separate condition from PTSD. 

Symptoms of C-PTSD

While both PTSD and C-PTSD can cause symptoms that significantly impact a person’s quality of life, the symptoms of C-PTSD can often be more enduring and extreme than those of PTSD. Some of the most common symptoms of C-PTSD are:

  • Intense feelings of distrust and the sense that the world is a dangerous place
  • Prolonged feelings of terror and helplessness
  • Reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma
  • Feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem
  • Difficulty controlling emotions, particularly anger
  • Feeling like you are somehow unlike everyone else
  • Difficulty forming relationships and friendships
  • Dissociative symptoms, such as memory loss, a sense of detachment from the world around you, and an unstable sense of identity
  • Having frequent suicidal thoughts
  • Preoccupation with an abuser

In addition, many people with C-PTSD will engage in compulsive behaviors — such as substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating, or love, sex, and porn addiction — as a way to cope. They also may become “people-pleasers” as a way to avoid unpleasant situations or may be prone to lashing out at minor criticisms. Sometimes these behaviors and symptoms will reduce over time as the person begins to separate themselves from their childhood experiences, but often they can become chronic without professional help. It is important for the friends and family of people with C-PTSD to recognize that their loved ones are not partaking in these behaviors voluntarily but rather as a way to attempt to gain some control over their all-consuming emotions.

Treatment for C-PTSD

Since C-PTSD is a complex condition, treatment methods are also often multifaceted. Often, a three-pronged approach of counseling, medication, and EMDR is used. 

  • Counseling may be in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or another psychotherapeutic modality. The aim of counseling is to identify the traumatic memories and experiences, as well as any negative thought patterns that have been adopted in their aftermath. Over time, the therapist and client will work together to replace these negative thought patterns with more realistic and positive ones in order to help them better cope with the impact of the trauma. 
  • EMDR is a relatively new type of therapy that has helped millions of people heal from PTSD and C-PTSD. In 2017, it became an officially recommended treatment for PTSD and C-PTSD by the American Psychology Association (APA). During an EMDR session, a person revisits emotionally disturbing experiences in brief sequential doses while focusing on external stimuli, such as directed lateral eye movements. Many people find that recalling traumatic events is much less upsetting when attention is diverted. In turn, they can create new associations with their traumatic memories, allowing them to reconceptualize the way they think about themselves and their lives, and subsequently eliminating emotional distress. EMDR therapy has shown that the mind can heal from psychological trauma, just as the body can heal from physical trauma. I am thrilled to now offer EMDR treatment at my practice in Austin. 
  • Medication may also help reduce symptoms of C-PTSD such as anxiety, depression, and other overwhelming emotions. They are especially useful when used in combination with talk therapy and other treatment modalities, such as EMDR. In order to be prescribed with the correct psychiatric medication for the treatment of C-PTSD, it is necessary to visit a licensed psychiatrist who has experience working with survivors of trauma.

Heal From Childhood Trauma With Teletherapy

I offer comprehensive treatment for individuals living with C-PTSD and the effects of childhood trauma at both my behavioral health practice in Austin and virtually via teletherapy. Get in touch with my office now to schedule an initial appointment. I look forward to helping you heal.