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6 Signs You May Have Complex PTSD

Updated: Feb 4

a graphic showing six signs you might have complex ptsd

Have a sense you might have complex PTSD and aren't sure? Read on to find out more.

But first, what is complex PTSD?

While there is no complex PTSD diagnosis in the DSM (basically a mental health diagnosis guide), it is a term that has been used to identify the presence, and impact, of multiple traumatic incidents on our brains and bodies and is used interchangeably with complex trauma. You can reference this webpage for a more detailed definition.

1. You're Constantly Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

This one is a biggie. So often clients share that they are afraid if they "let their guard down" something terrible will come out of nowhere. It makes so much sense to feel this way, when we experience multiple incidents of trauma this wires our brain to be "on guard" to protect us from experiencing those things again. While our brains are good at keeping us safe they aren't the best at keeping us happy.

2. Feeling "Calm" or "Relaxed" Feels Boring, Unimaginable or Unsafe

Because we're looking for the other shoe to drop it can feel scary or plain boring to be in a place of calm. Or we may be so used to feeling on edge, that imagining ourselves feeling calm feels unattainable, leaving us frustrated and misunderstood. Think of it this way, if you lived in the city your entire life and moved to the country at age 30 you would probably feel like a fish out of water. This is the same thing. So what does this actually look like? So many things, from hating downtime because you have to sit with your thoughts, to feeling bored in relationships that are stable or healthy but more on that later. I often see this manifest itself in the people who can't stop "doing." We constantly run from one thing to the next and may even unintentionally create drama because we feel uneasy without it.

3. You Struggle to Identify and Name Your Feelings

While we all my struggle naming our feelings from time to time, when we've experienced complex trauma we often suffer from something call "Alexithymia" which is basically a big word for not being able to put words to our feelings. If you're interested in learning more about the research behind this check out the link above. It boils down to struggling to identify and communicate what we feel. I often see this come up with clients when they say they feel "weird " or "bored" but are unable to communicate what they're actually feeling is sadness, shame or hopelessness. When someone asks how you feel your emotions sit in a tangled web in your stomach and you can't explain it, or you feel so disconnected from your emotions you can't identify feeling anything.

4. You Grew Up in a Chaotic Environment

If you saw this GIF and laughed silently to yourself this is for you. Our brain are amazing, adaptive organs and they are greatly impacted by our experiences in childhood. When we grow up in a chaotic or unpredictable environment, this impacts us big time. As children, we rely on our parents for soothing, safety and regulation. If they are unable to meet this need some or all of the time or if it is unsafe for us to be around our parent our stress responses (see this blog I wrote to learn more) are activated long-term. This impacts our brains ability to develop and wires us to anticipate chaos and adapt to it. This causes our Amygdala (the alarm center of our brain) to enlarge and other areas of our brain like our hippocampus which is responsible for memory and providing context to shrink. You can learn a bit more by accessing this resource from Harvard University as well as this article on the impact of complex trauma on the brain.

5. You Either Crave the Attention of People Who Can't Give it to You or You Avoid Relationships Completely

Like I touched on in an earlier sign our experiences growing up can impact us in a number of ways. Another way this can come up is in our relationships. We learn what relationships are and how to have them through our family and surroundings. If we have people around us who are emotionally unavailable due to mental health issues, their own trauma or substance use we come to learn this is the norm. As a result, we may unconsciously seek people out to replay this dynamic with in hopes it will be different this time, which is called a "repetition compulsion." Another way this can look is by writing off relationships completely. In an attempt to protect ourselves from being hurt again we resign ourselves to being alone and may even present as being uninterested in relationships.

6. You're Sensitive to Criticism

When we grow up experiencing complex trauma, we come away with a belief that we are inherently "bad" or "wrong." These deep seated beliefs form the lens through which we see the world and the ways in which we show up. As a result, we walked around with these painful wounds right below the surface. When others criticize us or give us feedback, this hits on all those wounds bringing up those feelings of shame we've been feeling all along. This is even further amplified if we grew up with critical parents. In that case, we grow up experiencing criticism regularly, leaving us feeling even more inferior and walking on eggshells to avoid it it.

If you relate to this, you're in exactly the right place!

It can feel scary and overwhelming to navigate complex trauma, we may feel overwhelmed and like we don't even know where to begin. Thankfully, you're not alone in this and help is available. A great place to begin is working with a therapist who specializes in complex trauma and beginning your journey to healing. Some other supports you may find helpful are Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families meetings as well as the book "What Happened to You" by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey.

Start your journey to healing. Reach out to schedule a free consultation with me today!

(MD and RI Residents Only)


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