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The Role of Childhood Trauma in Developing Complex PTSD

Updated: May 13

Caitlin Weese LCSW-C, 200 RYT


a small child in a blue outfit is turned away from the camera and is holding the hand of an adult in jeans


Childhood trauma is a difficult subject to talk about, but unfortunately, it's a reality for many people. Trauma can come in many different forms, including physical, emotional, sexual abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Unfortunately, when trauma happens during childhood, it can have long-lasting effects that can impact mental health and wellbeing in adulthood. One such condition that can arise from childhood trauma is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

C-PTSD is a type of PTSD that occurs when a person has experienced prolonged or repeated trauma, particularly during childhood. Unlike PTSD, which is typically caused by a single traumatic event, C-PTSD is caused by ongoing, chronic trauma, such as childhood abuse, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, or being in a war zone for an extended period of time. The repeated trauma, especially during childhood, creates changes in the brain and the body's stress response system, resulting in a variety of physical and mental health problems.


A flow chart by Caitlin Weese LCSW-C, showing the connection between childhood trauma and complex ptsd


How Childhood Trauma Impacts Us


One of the key ways that childhood trauma can lead to C-PTSD is through the development of coping mechanisms. When a child experiences trauma, their brain develops survival strategies to help them cope with the stress and danger they're experiencing. These coping skills are sort of like firefighters, they are more worried about putting out the fire and survival in that moment than long-term consequences. These coping skills can look like many things like such as substance abuse, self-harm, and eating disorders. However, while these coping mechanisms help us in the moment, they can pose a threat to our physical and mental health long-term.

Another way that childhood trauma impacts the development of C-PTSD is through the role of attachment style. Children who experience trauma often experience it at the hands of the people they should be able to trust the most. Therefore, they struggle to form healthy attachments with others, as they likely may not have had consistent, nurturing caregivers in their lives. This can lead to developing an insecure attachment style. Attachment styles are sort of like the lens through which we see relationships. If we develop an insecure relationship, we are likely to see people as untrustworthy and have fears of abandonment or of closeness. As a result, we may have difficulties forming healthy relationships in adulthood, which can exacerbate the feelings of isolation and loneliness which are common in C-PTSD.

As a result of the chronic nature of most childhood trauma, it results in chronic nervous system activation. This means our nervous system is constantly on edge in an attempt to protect us from further harm. As a result of this chronic stress, C-PTSD can also lead to a number of physical health problems. These can include chronic pain, digestive issues, and immune system dysfunction.

Perhaps one of the most insidious effects of childhood trauma is the impact it can have on a person's self-esteem and sense of self-worth. When a child experiences trauma, they may internalize the message that they are somehow flawed or defective, which can lead to feelings of shame and self-blame. These negative self-beliefs can persist into adulthood, leading to low self-esteem, negative self-talk, and a lack of confidence that are all common with C-PTSD.

Healing from C-PTSD is Possible


While it can feel overwhelming and even hopeless when struggling with C-PTSD, there is help available. As the result of years of research, there are effective treatments available for C-PTSD. One of the most effective treatments is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) which helps individuals process traumatic memories in a safe and supportive environment. In addition, types of therapy that help individuals develop healthy coping mechanisms, and work through any attachment issues that may be present can also be helpful and would likely be a part of EMDR treatment.

Another effective treatment for C-PTSD is medication. Certain medications, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with C-PTSD, including depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.

In addition to therapy and medication, there are also a number of self-care practices that can help individuals manage the symptoms of C-PTSD. These include practices like mindfulness meditation, yoga, and exercise, which have been shown to be effective in reducing stress and promoting emotional regulation.

If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of childhood trauma, it's important to seek help. C-PTSD is a serious condition that can have long-lasting effects on mental and physical health, but with the right treatment, recovery is possible. Don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional or support group for help.

In Conclusion


In conclusion, childhood trauma can have profound and long-lasting effects on mental and physical health, particularly in the form of C-PTSD. However, with effective treatment and self-care practices, individuals can work towards recovery and healing.



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