What Is Complex Trauma?

What is Complex Trauma?

You may have heard the term complex trauma and wondered how this type of trauma is different from other types of traumatic experience. Clinicians use the term complex trauma to distinguish repeated instances of abuse or neglect from one-time or acute traumatic experiences.

For example, experiencing a single traumatic event such as escaping a wildfire or witnessing a bank robbery is a discrete, one-time event, even though the emotional and psychological consequences can be enduring over time.

When thinking about a singular traumatic experience, it is common to think in terms of “before” and “after” the event, such as in the case of the death of a loved one.

In contrast, complex trauma involves traumatic experiences that continue repeatedly over a duration of time, not just once.

Complex trauma has the potential to affect us in profound ways. Along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, those who live through complex trauma can experience changes in self-concept and approach stressful events in ways that are influenced by chronic trauma.

Perhaps the best way to illuminate this phenomenon, and its after-effects, is by describing a landmark study referred to as the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study.

Researchers conducted the study in order to collect data on childhood trauma and surveyed 17,000 participants between 1995 and 1997.

These are some of the questions included on the survey:

  •       Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
  •       Did a parent or older adult in the household often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
  •       Did you often feel that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

The majority of respondents answered yes to at least one of the 10 survey questions. Nearly 13% of subjects answered in the affirmative to four or more questions, and one in eight individuals described such experiences as their “normal” childhoods.

Anyone who experienced at least four of these conditions was considered to have been a survivor of profound victimization and/or neglect as a child, a time in which we are developing a sense of self and trust in the people around us. 

Complex trauma often involves invasive, interpersonal abuse and as a result, not only affects an individual in the moment in which it occurs, it has the potential to result in long-term, wide-ranging, effects. For example, a child who did not form a secure and loving attachment with a caregiver may go on to have difficulty forming healthy adult relationships based on trust and respect.

The after-effects of complex trauma may manifest as an overall detachment from, or feelings of general distrust of others.  

Why would complex trauma experienced in childhood interfere with our ability to form healthy relationships as adults?

One of the main reasons for this is that we tend to repeat behaviors we learned as kids into adulthood, even though they are no longer useful. For example, a child whose home lacked consistent safety, and who did not receive comfort or protection, likely adopted coping methods to survive this environment.

In order to get through a difficult day to day existence with abusive people around them, those exposed to complex trauma may have learned to be vigilant and on guard to adults’ moods, resulting in a heightened sensitivity to trying to figure out how others will behave. In turn they may have learned to keep their own emotions hidden, not wanting to be vulnerable when sad, afraid, angry, or even happy.

These are coping mechanisms that make sense and are useful when one is under siege from emotional, psychological and/or physical threats. Not showing emotion or vulnerability can help keep a child in an abusive home safe, but as an adult in a loving environment, such behaviors thwart our ability to love and be loved in return.

Thus, the significance of a child’s relationship with a caregiver cannot be overvalued. It is through our  attachment with childhood authority figures that we learn how to regulate our emotions, to trust and interact with the world.

Through these early interactions we learn how to value ourselves in a positive or negative light, and we learn to see the world beyond ourselves as safe or unsafe. It is not a stretch to say that enduring complex trauma can lead one to view the world as a dangerous place and that others cannot be relied on for help.

It’s also important to note that difficulty in managing one’s emotions after experiencing complex trauma can occur even when we are not interacting with others. For example, a child who has not learned how to calm down when upset, can be easily overwhelmed. In a school setting this may present as being easily frustrated to the point that they give up when relatively easy tasks are perceived as challenging.

Experts understand that ongoing, intense traumatic events are also linked to an increased sense of fear across a variety of situations, as well as an increased risk for depression.

To sum up, complex trauma is different from the type of trauma that is experienced in a limited, discrete duration of time, such as a natural disaster, a car accident, etc. Complex trauma is ongoing or chronic such as in the case of prolonged child abuse or continual wartime exposure to trauma.

Complex trauma can affect our ability to express and control emotion which may result in inappropriate responses or violent behavior. It’s also important to recognize that chronic, complex trauma can influence the health of our relationships across many dimensions, including romantic, friendly, and authoritative.

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