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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 the 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

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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 is held captive and 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.

Last reviewed: February 2017

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