Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (sometimes called complex PTSD or c-PTSD), is an anxiety condition that involves many of the same symptoms of PTSD along with other symptoms.
First recognized as a condition that affects war veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be caused by any number of traumatic events, such as a car accident, natural disaster, near-death experience, or other isolated acts of violence or abuse.
When the underlying trauma is repeated and ongoing, however, some mental health professionals make a distinction between PTSD and its more intense sibling, complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
Complex PTSD has gained attention in the years since it was first described in the late 1980s. However, it is important to note that it is not recognized as a distinct condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the tool that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions.
Both PTSD and C-PTSD result from the experience of something deeply traumatic and can cause flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia. Both conditions can also make you feel intensely afraid and unsafe even though the danger has passed. However, despite these similarities, there are characteristics that differentiate C-PTSD from PTSD according to some experts.
The main difference between the two disorders is the frequency of the trauma. While PTSD is caused by a single traumatic event, C-PTSD is caused by long-lasting trauma that continues or repeats for months, even years (commonly referred to as “complex trauma”).
Unlike PTSD, which can develop regardless of what age you are when the trauma occurred, C-PTSD is typically the result of childhood trauma.
When it comes to Complex PTSD, the harmful effects of oppression and racism can add layers to complex trauma experienced by individuals. This is further compounded if the justice system is involved.
The psychological and developmental impacts of complex trauma early in life are often more severe than a single traumatic experience—so different, in fact, that many experts believe that the PTSD diagnostic criteria don’t adequately describe the wide-ranging, long-lasting consequences of C-PTSD.
Symptoms of Complex PTSD:
In addition to all of the core symptoms of PTSD—re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal—C-PTSD symptoms generally also include:
- Difficulty controlling emotions. It’s common for someone suffering from C-PTSD to lose control over their emotions, which can manifest as explosive anger, persistent sadness, depression, and suicidal thoughts.4
- Negative self-view. C-PTSD can cause a person to view themselves in a negative light. They may feel helpless, guilty, or ashamed.5They often have a sense of being completely different from other people.
- Difficulty with relationships. Relationships may suffer due to difficulties trusting others and a negative self-view.6 A person with C-PTSD may avoid relationships or develop unhealthy relationships because that is what they knew in the past.
- Detachment from the trauma. A person may disconnect from themselves (depersonalization) and the world around them (derealisation). Some people might even forget their trauma.
- Loss of a system of meanings. This can include losing one’s core beliefs, values, religious faith, or hope in the world and other people.
All of these symptoms can be life-altering and cause significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of life.