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Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

3-minute read

What is complex PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event. The event may have threatened their life or safety, or they may have witnessed a serious accident, death or natural disaster.

Complex PTSD is a condition that can occur after prolonged and repeated trauma, particularly due to child abuse or domestic violence. Trauma can cause problems with memory and disrupt the development of a person’s identity and their ability to control emotions and form relationships with others.

What are the symptoms of complex PTSD?

People with complex PTSD tend to experience the core symptoms of PTSD as well as disturbances in their thoughts, behaviours and emotions including:

  • difficulties expressing emotions — it is common for someone to lose control of their emotions, such as in explosive anger or persistent sadness
  • negative self-belief — a person can view themselves in a negative light, and they may feel helpless, guilty, or ashamed
  • problems maintaining healthy relationships due to lack of trust — in some cases people avoid relationships completely, while others can develop unhealthy relationships
  • ongoing feelings of emptiness

What causes complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD can be caused by any type of long-term trauma, and usually involves situations where the victim has little control and is unable to escape.

The types of traumatic situations that can cause this disorder include:

  • long-term childhood psychological, physical, sexual abuse or neglect
  • long-term domestic violence
  • being held in a concentration camp or prisoner of war camp
  • involuntary prostitution, brothels or sex trafficking
  • organised child exploitation

How is complex PTSD treated?

The main form of treatment for complex PTSD is long-term psychological therapy. This helps people slowly regain their trust in others. They can then gradually start to make friends, improve their work life and opportunities, and develop leisure interests.

People with complex PTSD often have problems with drug and alcohol use, anxiety and depression. These will need treatment too.

Complex PTSD recovery

Support from family and friends is very important for most people. Minimising other stressful life experiences can allow a person to focus on their recovery.

Treatment of PTSD and complex PTSD should occur under the care of a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist who gets to know the person over a period of time.

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Last reviewed: December 2021

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