By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
You can recover from Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD.
Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD is the result of repeated injuries, each of which creates 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 a 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 into 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 anymore.
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 re-establish 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 bedtimes. 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 “losing your 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 through your problems.
Recovery does not happen all at once. There may be sudden leaps forward or slips back but a 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.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
Three David Joel Miller Books are available now!
Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.
Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.
Sasquatch. Wandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive? The guests had come to Meditation Mountain to find themselves. Trapped in the Menhirs during a sudden desert storm, two guests move through a porthole in time and encounter long extinct monsters. They want to get back to their own time, but the Sasquatch intends to kill them.
For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller
Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.
Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.