*This page is for informational purposes only. Only your licensed mental health professional can confirm a diagnosis or offer treatment.
** Also, content warning: this page discusses common traumas, but not in detail.
CPTSD (or C-PTSD) stands for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In order to understand CPTSD, it is helpful to know a little but about PTSD first.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder refers to the symptoms some people experience after being exposed to a traumatic event. These symptoms include intrusive thoughts, avoidance, negative thoughts, and hyper-vigilance (I'll discuss more in a moment). We commonly think of PTSD as something that combat veterans experience, but that's not the only kind of trauma that can cause PTSD.
OKAY, FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHAT'S TRAUMA?
Trauma is any experience that you feel was threatening or disturbing. Let's break that down:
OKAY, THAT'S TRAUMA. SO WHAT'S PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the name for a series of unpleasant symptoms that some people experience after being exposed to a traumatic event. Not everyone who is exposed to a traumatic event will get PTSD. And not everyone with PTSD experiences the symptoms the same way.
PTSD happens when the traumatic event changes the way you feel about, and experience, the world. PTSD symptoms usually fall into a few categories:
HOW IS COMPLEX PTSD DIFFERENT THAN PTSD?
PTSD is usually related to a single event, or a short-term event. Complex PTSD is usually related to long-term traumas or multiple trauma events, especially childhood trauma and domestic violence.
Complex PTSD symptoms include all of the symptoms of PTSD, plus a few more:
People with CPTSD have experienced repeated abuse that they could not escape from. This abuse often occurred during childhood, but may also have occurred as an adult, such as domestic violence.
CPTSD is what happens when the brain tries to make sense of all of the trauma. A child who is exposed to repeated abuse from a caregiver doesn't know that their caregiver is the one doing bad things - instead, the child comes to believe that they are being punished because they are bad. The child grows up thinking they are to blame for all the bad things that happened to them, and expecting more bad things to happen in the future.
WHAT DETERMINES WHO GETS CPTSD AND WHO DOESN'T?
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will get PTSD, and not everyone who is abused as a child will get Complex PTSD. Everyone experiences their symptoms differently - no two people are alike.
It's also important to note that not everyone who has CPTSD has their symptoms all the time. Just like any other mental illness, people can get better and worse depending on their current circumstances.
Here's what we do know about risk factors for CPTSD:
IS THERE TREATMENT FOR COMPLEX PTSD?
There are a variety of treatments available for CPTSD, discussed in more detail below. The good news is that it is possible to heal from the past.
There are dozens of therapies out there that were developed to treat PTSD and CPTSD, but I'll name just a few:
Most trauma-oriented therapies have three phases:
There is no one kind of therapy that works for everyone. I encourage you to research as much as you can and see which one feels right to you. You should also ask your therapist what their approach to treating CPTSD is, and see how you feel about their answer.
What we know from research is that the most important factor in whether therapy is successful isn't the method of therapy, it's the bond between the therapist and the client.
Make sure that you choose a therapist you feel comfortable with. If you are getting treatment for CPTSD, there are going to be times that your therapist is going to push you out of your comfort zone, so it's important that you feel like you can trust them.
WHAT IS TRAUMA-INFORMED CARE?
Trauma-informed care is a way of providing treatment, rather than a specific kind of treatment. The CDC has an awesome infographic on trauma-informed care here. When a therapist says that they're trauma-informed, what they mean is that they provide treatment in a way that should avoid causing you any new trauma.
The principles of trauma-informed care are:
TRAUMA-INFORMED CARE VS TRAUMA CERTIFICATIONS
Anyone who provides healthcare can be trauma-informed, since trauma-informed care just refers to the way care is provided.
A trauma certification is a specific certification that therapists can get when they are trained in specific methods, like CPT or TF-CBT. Getting the certification may require a few hours of training, or several months worth of supervised work experience.
There are really good therapists out there who are trauma-informed, but don't have any certifications in specific PTSD or CPTSD treatment methods. There are also therapists out there who have lots of certifications, but don't deliver treatment in a trauma-informed way.
When looking for a therapist to treat CPTSD, make sure to ask them about their training, certifications, and how they would approach treating someone with PTSD. The way they answer these questions should make you feel comfortable, or at least curious to find out more.