It differs from the standard definition of trauma in the following ways:
Complex Trauma can look like repeated physical abuse or sexual abuse. Or it could be more subtle, like living in a home where parents were constantly critical, or who were alcohol/drug abusers, or who were unstable themselves, perhaps with a personality disorder. In each of these, the child or adolescent spends most of their time at home reading the emotional temperature, trying to determine how to best avoid trouble. In these types of situation, a facet that adds to the trauma is that the perpetrator also is providing shelter, food, and resources for the child. In order to survive, the child develops a way of regulating their own needs and emotions to minimize turmoil in the home.
A child who was abused or neglected (even unintentionally) learned from a very early age to interact with the world in a way that is constantly assessing for threat. This pattern literally becomes imprinted on the brain, causing our bodies to respond to certain situations in ways that just don’t logically make sense. For example, if a child grew up in a home with an angry alcoholic father, whose outbursts usually started with slamming doors and cabinets shut, their heart rate may skyrocket and breathing becomes shallow when they hear a door slam. Even though now they’re 35 years old.
Complex trauma often leads to false core beliefs (lens through which the adult brain sees the world) such as “I’m not good enough,” or “it’s all my fault.” These become the messages or tapes we play ourselves all day, in our relationships, at work, at home. The lifetime of living in constant “fight, flight or freeze” sometimes leads to digestive problems, problems with eating, sleeping, and heightened anxiety. Sometimes adult survivors of complex trauma feel like a child again when they are exposed to a trigger. The reaction to a situation is grossly out of proportion to what could be expected, but the body and brain are operating in past “Trauma Time,” where that reaction was likely appropriate and may be necessary for survival.
Complex trauma often leads to intestinal issues, chronic illness, sleep disorders, chronic headaches, panic or anxiety, aggression, eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, depression, and sexual dysfunction.
Because of the nature of complex trauma, treatment requires specialized training from a trauma therapist who knows how to build grounding and stabilization techniques into their work with you. Specifically, many of our Lifeologie Counselors have been certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – an evidence-based practice to address complex trauma. Collaborative and holistic treatment may be helpful as well, such as supplementing talk therapy with psychotherapeutic yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, art therapy.