• Melissa Wolf

Understanding CPTSD

Updated: Feb 8

There is a distinctive difference between Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more well-known PTSD.

I do not claim to be an expert in this realm, but have been learning about it after dealing with it from personal experience. What I understood about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was most prevalently in the context of war, being a victim of violence or other singular traumas that happen to a developed, adult nervous system. However, as I have been learning more about Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or CPTSP, I have felt a resounding "AHA!" as I realized how sustained trauma, including and especially childhood trauma, can wreck havoc on a person's life. Though CPTSD can arise from situations such as ongoing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, childhood neglect, living in an area of war for long periods of time or being a prisoner of war, I will be talking specifically about childhood trauma.


CPTSD is often a result of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse at the hands of an authority figure or parent who is not easily escaped. Being subject to high level stressors at a time when the human brain is developing, sets some deep neural pathways that will dictate how a person moves through life. It creates deep imprints earlier in life, that make it hard to discern what is a personality trait and what is actually a by-product of trauma. Sustained trauma can have lasting effects on the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex of the brain which dictate perception, emotional regulation and the ability to manage stress.


Additionally, when the brain and body are flooded with stress hormones regularly, this becomes normalized and people can grow up not knowing existence is supposed to feel any different. In other words, sometimes long after the individual is removed from the toxic situation, they are still find themselves seeking out similar situations because it is familiar and therefore, ironically comforting. A system flooded with stress has become a default setting and people can literally not even recognize the healthier, healed alternatives available to them.


When an adult has a traumatizing event for the first time, they are already well-imprinted with a basic sense of who they are. While the suffering can be profound, they know this singular event was the turning point for them. When you grow up in trauma, you often can't remember who you were before it happened, or know who you would have been if it hadn't happened. In this way, it is more insidious and can make a child's identity and personality indistinguishable from the trauma or the results of that trauma.


Some Symptoms of CPTSD


~ Lack of emotional regulation, which can appear as continued depression or angry outbursts.

~ Dissociation or the tendency to numb or zone out, consciousness drifting from the body. This is developed as a coping mechanism to create an escape from the ongoing abuse and can persist well into later life.

~ Deeply internalized guilt and shame, creating a feeling of profound isolation.

~ Dysfunctional capacity for relationships due to an entrenched distrust of people, or again because the abuse has been normalized, a pattern of choosing abusive relationships.

~ Hyper-vigilance - manifests as the feeling of having a raw nervous system. A part of the brain is seemingly always scanning for danger and can manifest as anxiety or irritability at noise or fast movements.

~ Feeling "behind" in life because engaging in the normal success markers (career, family, creative expression) can be thwarted by simply learning how to navigate everyday life.


The increasing studies of trauma's long-term effects are thankfully creating an understanding of how the brain and body are impacted. It is gratifying to see the phrase "trauma informed" gaining traction as practitioners and care providers learn the implications of a damaged childhood. It is also a blessing that more information is out there, allowing people to better understand their own healing journey and stop internalizing these symptoms as an inherent part of their identity.


Knowing how trauma effected the brain, brings promise that a commitment to healing, which requires tenacity and courage, can also sculpt the brain and bring eventual balance. The concept of neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and adapt based on experiences, frames recovery as possible. Safe spaces where a survivor can dive deep and work on the hurt, can create new connections, or neural pathways in the brain, to effect change. This possibility is a golden light, illuminating the path of the healing journey.

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