If you’ve ever been in a psychologically abusive relationship—one with high-conflict—you’re probably familiar with feeling shameful, guilty and hopeless. If the stress from an abusive relationship goes on for many years (or is just intense), you may have a variant of PTSD called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), doctors say.
Most people think that any form of PTSD can happen only to people have been in extreme circumstances, such as war. But other traumas can lead to C-PTSD such as physical, emotional, domestic and sexual abuse (especially child sexual abuse).
While C-PTSD is not in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual, it is widely accepted by professionals and viewed as a combination of PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome, or capture-bonding.
Every victim of abuse experience some (if not multiple) symptoms of PTSD. Dr Joseph M Carver, PhD, says, “These symptoms linger many years; some for a lifetime. Everyone knows this but it’s rarely bought up… During our period of abuse, the brain collects thousands of memories that contain details of our abusive experiences and the feelings (horror, terror, pain, etc.) made at that time. In what we call ‘traumatic recollection,’ any similar experience in the future will recall the emotional memory of the abuse, forcing us to relive the event in detail and feeling.”
The National Institute of Mental Health says that PTSD symptoms can be grouped into three categories: Re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms and hyperarousal symptoms.
Re-experiencing symptoms include: Nightmares, frightening thoughts and flashbacks that cause you to relieve the traumatic event(s) over and over again, leading to physical symptoms like extreme palpitations.
Avoidance symptoms include: Staying away from things, places or events that remind you of your trauma, feeling emotionally numb, being depressed, losing interest in abilities you once enjoyed and having trouble remembering the trauma.
Hyperarousal symptoms include: Being startled easily, always being on edge, being prone to angry outbursts and having difficulty sleeping.
If you think you or someone you love is experiencing C-PTSD, look for the signs: persistent anxiety, hopelessness and depression, thoughts of suicide, feeling alone and stigmatized, being preoccupied/reliving the traumatic event(s), remembering the traumatic event(s) in a fragmented way or exploding into fits of anger.
Recovery from C-PTSD exists. Doctors have divided recovery from CPTSD into three stages: establishing safety, mourning what was lost and reconnecting to society.
Establishing safety: Seek help. You need to find a therapist to help you acknowledge your past trauma and help you regain your sense of control by coming up with plans to deal with future protection.
Mourning what was lost: You will need to reconstruct the story of the trauma. By retrieving the memories and the emotions attached to them, you can finally transform the memories in cognitive therapy.
Reconnecting to society: Reclaim your world. Re-learn how to live. Reconnect with others and become part of a community.
If C-PTSD is left untreated, you can experience a variety of symptoms and conditions which may affect other areas of your life.
These include the inability to handle stress, eating disorders, drug and alcohol addictions, damaged relationships with others, negative outlook on life, crippled self-esteem and suicide.
Complex PTSD should be approached differently in terms of psychotherapy from other forms of PTSD. Seek treatment immediately.