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Understanding Mental Disorder

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


What is Complex PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a trauma based disorder that can occur as a reaction to experiencing or witnessing an extremely distressing event. Such events could include a violent attack, sexual abuse, witnessing distressing events such as death, or living though a natural disaster. PTSD impacts roughly 1 in 3 people who suffer from a distressing experience. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is a variant of PTSD that may occur when you experience trauma at a young age, the trauma may have lasted for a long period of time whereby escape of the traumatic situation was impossible. Individuals with CPTSD usually display some of the symptoms of PTSD, however with additional symptoms. The term complex PTSD is relatively new and can sometimes be called a different name, such as ‘personality change after catastrophic experience’.

Symptoms of CPTSD

An individual with CPTSD will experience some of the symptoms of PTSD, however, will experience additional symptoms too. They may experience a higher number of ‘emotional flashbacks’ than someone with PTSD, whereby the person experiences feelings that were felt during the traumatic period. Emotional flashbacks are a common symptom of CPTSD. Other additional symptoms include a difficulty in controlling emotions, feelings of hopelessness, feeling like an ‘alien’ compared to others. They might often experience depersonalisation and derealisation and also have suicidal feelings. Sometimes individuals with CPTSD can be misdiagnosed due to the number of overlapping symptoms with other disorders, such as EUPD, making an expert opinion a useful tool in receiving the best treatment fast.

What causes CPTSD?

Individuals with CPTSD may have experienced several different traumatic experiences or be abused by someone emotionally close to them. Examples of traumatic experiences could be ongoing childhood abuse, being repeatedly exposed to domestic violence, being a prisoner of some sort, including of war. However, traumatic experiences causing CPTSD are not limited to the above and there will be countless scenarios in which someone may develop this disorder. You may be more likely to develop CPTSD if you were exposed to traumatic experiences from a young age and/or the perpetrator was someone emotionally close to you, such as a family member. Additionally, if escaping the situation may have been impossible, for example if the trauma was occurring with your primary caregiver and/or the trauma lasted for a long period of time with multiple traumatic events, then you may be more susceptible to developing CPTSD.

Treating CPTSD

There are a variety of treatments available to those suffering from PTSD. The most effective treatment may depend on the severity of the disorder, and the time lapse between the traumatic event and onset of symptoms. Before seeking external treatment, it can be beneficial to monitor your symptoms after the distressing event, to see if they improve with time. If your symptoms persist or worsen, various forms of psychotherapy can be effective in treating CPTSD. These include group therapy, or trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Typical CBT sessions involve talking through one’s problems with a certified clinician, with the aim to understand how one’s own thoughts impact their negative emotions and behaviours. Patient and clinician then work together to alter these negative thought patterns and behaviours, in order to improve one’s feelings and experiences. Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new trauma-based treatment that helps patients to process traumatic memories and the symptoms that accompany them. EMDR is conducted with a trained EMDR therapist, using eye movements and reframing of the experience to process a traumatic memory, and reduce the intensity of negative reaction associated with the memory. This type of treatment usually requires at least 8 sessions and is always done in a safe, supportive space. Medications may be an additional tool that is useful to use alongside talking therapies. A Psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressant, anti-anxiety or anti-psychotic medications in order to treat specific symptoms that are causing distress.

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