Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

2-minute read

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder describes the long-term effects of severe, prolonged or repeated trauma, particularly due to child abuse or domestic violence. This has a wide range of effects on personality, identity, memory, mood change and emotional regulation.

Complex PTSD symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition caused by severe, life-threatening trauma such as witnessing a death or natural disaster.

Complex PTSD describes a more severe and long-term condition that can occur after prolonged and repeated trauma, particularly in childhood. 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.

Symptoms of complex PTSD are similar to the symptoms of PTSD. They include:

  • an inability to control emotions
  • periods of losing concentration (dissociation)
  • blanking out or losing memories
  • difficulties with a sense of identity or body image
  • physical symptoms that can’t be explained medically, such as headaches, stomach aches, dizziness and chest pains
  • disturbed relationships and cutting oneself off from other people
  • an inability to trust others
  • being vulnerable to abuse or exploitation
  • self-harm, suicide attempts and substance abuse
  • feeling ashamed or guilty
  • difficulty controlling emotions

Not sure what to do next?

If you or someone you know are finding it difficult to manage mental health issues, try the healthdirect Symptom Checker and get advice on when to seek professional help.

The healthdirect Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

What causes complex PTSD?

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

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

  • long-term childhood physical or sexual abuse
  • long-term domestic violence
  • concentration camps or prisoner of war camps
  • prostitution, brothels or sex trafficking
  • organised child exploitation rings

Complex PTSD recovery

A diagnosis of complex PTSD should only be made by a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist who gets to know the person over a period of time.

Treatments

The main form of treatment for complex PTSD is long-term psychological therapy. This helps people slowly regain their trust in others. Then they can gradually start making friends, finding a job and finding hobbies. 

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

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2019

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event

Read more on beyondblue website

What is complex PTSD? - The SANE Blog

When people think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), soldiers with traumatic experiences of war and people who have lived through disasters often come to mind.However, trauma can arise from a variety of situations, such as neglect, abuse

Read more on SANE Australia website

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

How might PTSD affect sleep? There are many sleep problems that may be associated with PTSD. For more information on the disorders metioned below see the relevant pages on our website.The extreme anxiety of PTSD (caused by trauma or catastrophe) can seriously disrupt sleep. In some cases this starts a few m

Read more on Sleep Health Foundation website

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (sometimes called PTSD) is a form of anxiety disorder. Some people develop this condition after they have experienced a traumatic event. This event might be a serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or a natural disaster such as a bushfire or a flood. Strong reactions such as fear, horror, anger, sadness and hopelessness are natural after events like these, of course. In most cases, these feelings will pass after the normal working-through of emotions and talking things over in your own time with family, friends or colleagues.

Read more on Mi Networks website

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder | Black Dog Institute

Current facts and information about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its causes, treatments, how and where to seek help

Read more on Black Dog Institute website

Post-traumatic stress disorder | Your Health in Mind

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. It can come after an event where a person is exposed to actua...

Read more on RANZCP - The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists website

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) | Understanding Anxiety

PTSD involves experiencing anxiety after a highly stressful event, i.e. a trauma, experienced or witness violence or violent episode that involved death, injury, torture or abuse and felt very frightened or helpless.

Read more on WayAhead Mental Health Association NSW website

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) COPE

Centre of Perinatal Excellence

Read more on COPE - Centre of Perinatal Excellence website

What is post-traumatic stress disorder | Black Dog Institute

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a group of stress reactions that can develop after a traumatic event. Learn about PTSD and where to get help.

Read more on Black Dog Institute website

Post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) experience | myVMC

Tom experienced nightmares and seizures from post traumatic stress disorder after the Vietnam war. He tells the story of his pain and road to recovery.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo