6 ways to recover from Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD


By David Joel Miller.

You can recover from Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD.

Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD is the result of repeated injuries, each of which create additional trauma. Complex Trauma frequently arises in children who are abused or neglected over long periods of time or survivors of sexual assaults who are re-assaulted.

Being injured once is bad enough but repeated traumatization can result in problems far in excess of those caused by a single trauma. People who were traumatized in childhood and then retraumatize in later life are likely to develop severe and debilitating symptoms. Some researchers have suggested the name of Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD for this condition.

It appears that many people can experience severe trauma, recover and not develop PTSD. Some of the symptoms of PTSD are normal reactions to experiencing a trauma – in the short run. If the reaction is excessive, interferes with job, friendships or relationships then it first becomes Acute Stress Disorder   when the symptoms continue for long periods of time and seriously interfere with functioning the name and diagnosis is changed to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Complex Trauma adds trauma upon trauma and results in long-term suffering.

Some treatments make the symptoms of Complex Trauma worse and some things are effective in treatment. Here are the basic rules for recovering from Complex Trauma. I based this on the research of Conner & Higgins and their description of the work of Chu, with my own usually twists.

1. CAUTION – do not start digging until you know what is buried out there, avoid black holes.

The first reaction of someone trying to recover from complex trauma, and the approach of many counselors is to go searching for the buried details. People ask “Why can’t I remember things?” Counselors are tempted to try to recover those lost memories. This can result in more trauma and pain and runs the risk of digging up stuff that wasn’t really buried in your yard but the yards of neighbors or even fictional characters.

Some serious damage has been done by forcing people to remember things way before they were ready and by hunting for things that you are not sure happened. Ask a kid often enough about sexual abuse and they will begin to “remember” things that “may have happened” or they “think” happened. These contaminated memories have resulted in a lot of extra pain.

There are a number of other steps that need to be completed before you go digging in the past for answers. The brain tries to protect us by hiding details from us that might keep us from functioning well enough to survive. Trust the process.

2. Have a supportive therapist or counselor as well as a support system in place.

You can’t make this journey of healing alone and the more capable the companions you have on the journey the better. Professionals are important because there may be things you need to tell them that you won’t feel safe telling others. Peers are also helpful for similar reasons.

Group counseling can be especially effective when and if you are ready to talk in front of others.

3. Ensure your personal safety

If you are in a dangerous situation healing is not likely until you deal with the current emergency. Make a safety plan and execute it. You need to feel safe and have reliable food clothing and shelter before you think about other aspects of recovery. But don’t put off recovery waiting for the day you will miraculously feel safe. Get started on the safety part first. Just taking steps to move to a safe place can be empowering.

Challenges to your safety don’t only come from outside. You may be a big part of the danger. Avoid, control or work on urges and cravings. Confront any urges to commit suicide and seek help immediately if you have thoughts of suicide. Recognize and deal with non-suicidal self-injury, substance abuse, eating disorders and the urge to try out risky behaviors. Don’t put yourself at risk to be victimized any more.

4. Get your daily routines and rituals in place.

Most people who experience a crisis lose that ability to get up, eat, care for themselves and then move about their day. The sooner you reestablish your daily routine the better.

When children are involved the recommendation is the sooner you can resume family rituals the better. Get back to your spiritual home. Remember to have some sort of ritual in your life; birthdays, Christmas or any other familiar activity makes everyone feel better.

Returning to a job or other activity can be a great way to begin your recovery. If you can’t work at a paid job consider volunteering. Having a reason to get up and out of the house can jump-start your recovery.

A regular and consistent amount of sleep is important. So is some form of exercise. Be as consistent as possible with mealtimes and bed times. Include time for relaxation and positive activities.

5. Learn as much as you can about stress, acute stress and the more difficult forms PTSD and Chronic Stress. Learn to manage your primary symptoms.

Knowledge is power. When you know you are not “crazy” or “loosing you mind” but that the things you are experiencing are common responses to what you have been through, then it is easier to look for the things others have found useful in recovering from their chronic stress.

Accept what you feel. Try to learn to feel what you are feeling rather than run from the uncomfortable feelings. The feelings will come and go. Learn that you don’t have to run from feelings, but you do need to move away from real danger.

6. Begin work on your long-term issues, the chronic stress symptoms, the problems you had before the stressor and lastly the actual event.

Often people who develop PTSD or a chronic stress disorder discover they had other issues before the stress that put them at risk for the PTSD.

Begin to talk about you. What does the experience mean to you? Who are you aside from the trauma? What does the trauma say about the person or thing that hurt you? What if any sense can you make of this?

The discussion of what actually happened should occur when you are ready to tackle this information.

7. Have patience with yourself and the persistence to work thorough your problems.

Recovery does not happen all at once. There may be sudden leaps forward or slips back but continued effort will get you to recovery.

Use tools like positive affirmations. You are a worthwhile person no matter what has happened to you. Give yourself credit for the things you accomplish.

You can recover from Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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25 thoughts on “6 ways to recover from Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD

  1. Impossible to find a psychologist in Santa Fe, N.M. I am desperate to rid myself of C-PTSD. I really need to find a HIGHLY intelligent psychologist. I have tried five in six months and discovered each of them lacking vital knowledge. I’m not sure what to do anymore.

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    • It is clear from your comment you are reaching out for help and not finding what you need. I hope you find someone who can help you. Three suggestions that might help.
      1. Check with the local college or University, especially if they have a department that teaches Counseling or Therapy, there may be a faculty member who can help or someone who knows a specialist in C-PTSD.
      2. Look for a Licensed Counselor or Therapist rather than a psychologist. Psychologists are great for telling you if you are disabled and can never work again, they do lots of testing but many of them don’t do much ongoing therapy.
      3. Look for a Counselor who “gets you” emotionally rather than one who is highly intelligence. All the smarts in the word won’t help if there is no connection.
      Hope you find someone who can help. Don’t stop looking.

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      • Also, you may find someone not in your area who is willing to use skype or phone

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      • That sounds like a possibility. Distance counseling is in its infancy so it is hard to tell how this may work out. When possible it is recommended that you see the therapist in person the first time or that you do it via video so you can both see each others expressions. Make sure that the person you are talking with is licensed in your state and check on their credentials. If anyone out there has done distance counseling I would love to know about your experiences.

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  2. Reblogged this on Stoning Demons and commented:
    A hopeful article.

    My experience in addressing my own Complex PTSD has been that these six (seven, actually) aspects of recovery are relevant to the whole of the process. I have had to go back through each of these over and over, correcting and reframing as I uncover new complications, new memories or previously unaddressed triggers.

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  5. im in sydney australia and struggling , with continuous trauma. when someone steps on my boundaries i get hysterical, im isolating n cant deal with anyone 😦

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    • Thanks for the comment. In a city the size of Sidney there has to be help available. The difficult part is reaching out for that help. If by continuous trauma you mean you are still in a trauma creating situation then you need to find a way to stop the trauma. Someone who has no food or shelter or is being victimized needs to get those basic needs met before they can work on emotional problems. If you are in a violent situation then look for a program that can help get you out of that situation. Per or self-help groups can also be helpful but as you have found you need to enforce your boundaries. While peers care a lot and can empathize they all have their problems also. Consider professional treatment. Untreated this sort of thing continues to rob you of the life you should have. Best wishes.

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  12. I am a survivor of incest, sex trafficing,gang rape,date rape,torture,attempted murder,domestic violence,murder of 8month old neice suicide of mother,physical abuse by my father that forced me to miss much school mother putting me in boiling water and paint thinner as child,forced to eat own vomit tragic death in front of me of friend killing of my pets by husbands and the list goes on! I have only recently acknowledged that perhaps I have ptsd and complex trauma any info or suggestions for treatment is much appreciated I neef help healing this is only a small snippet of what I’ve experienced!

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    • Thanks for commenting Karen. I think any one of the things you mentioned could cause PTSD. You’ve certainly been through a lot. I commend you for your interest in working on these issues. The first thing I would suggest is to talk to several therapists and find one that seems like a good fit for you. You may need to spend a number of sessions on telling your story. Sometimes it really helps just to have someone hear and validate all you have been through. At that point, you can begin to work on specific issues. Sometimes trauma’s get locked in our nervous system and it can really help to work with the therapist to process those traumas. There may be some things that you’ve experienced that are so painful that you may not want to describe the details to the therapist. It might be helpful to look for a therapist who has been trained in EMDR. This technique is very effective in working with trauma. It’s one of the few techniques that does not require you to talk about all the details. I hope you find the help that you need.

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  13. Exactly what I needed to hear. Searching for help. Starting to understand how badly emotional and psychologically abused I was in my 30 year marriage. He isolated me from long time friends and my family and created fear and paranoia episodes. The hardest part is personal relationships and not being to build them because I am so paranoid.

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