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Complex Trauma Disorder

Trauma can come in many forms. The soldier returning from active duty in a war zone, the child who lives with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect, the first responder who must deal with human suffering on a daily basis, and the adult who endures domestic abuse all are experiencing trauma. Complex trauma occurs repeatedly and often involves direct harm to the victim. Its effects are cumulative and generally transpire in a specific setting and, frequently, within a particular time frame or within a specific relationship.

Going through trauma can make an individual experience intense feelings of guilt, as if they are somehow responsible for the event(s) that are so terrifying to them. This altered sense of shame and painful self-perception is crippling. It can make the person feel isolated and hopeless, and as if they are no longer in charge of themselves.

Symptoms of Complex Trauma

By itself, trauma can produce feelings of anger, persistent sadness, and despair. In addition to these symptoms, complex trauma can include:

  • Change in personal self-concept
  • Distrust
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Episodes of feeling detached from one’s body or mental processes
  • Isolation, guilt, shame, or a feeling of being totally different from other people
  • Helplessness and feeling hopeless
  • Becoming preoccupied with revenge or, conversely, giving total power to the perpetrator
  • Self-harm, self-mutilation
  • Alcoholism, substance abuse

Treating Complex Trauma

Complex trauma therapy utilizes several modalities to address different symptoms. The current method for treating complex trauma is a combination of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy.

According to Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, medical director and founder of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute and professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, the current treatment for complex trauma only deals with one aspect of the trauma – the memory portion. And, while treating the memory is helpful, it isn’t enough.

Because trauma also impacts the portion of the brain responsible for survival, a person who suffers from complex trauma either becomes numb (hypo-aroused) to the trauma, or they hyper-react to the slightest hint of danger.  Dr. Van Der Kolk notes, “In the long term the largest problem of being traumatized is that it’s hard to feel that anything that’s going on around you really matters. It is difficult to love and take care of people and get involved in pleasure and engagements because your brain has been re-organized to deal with danger.”

Since complex trauma affects both the conscious and unconscious portions of the brain, we need to also work to heal the unconscious. Recently, we have found that body-oriented approaches such as yoga, mindfulness, and EMDR can help the body and mind reconnect.

In 2014, the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) funded a study on the effects of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) on adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At the conclusion of this study, Dr. Van Der Kolk reported that “the facts are that the EMDR study was spectacularly successful in adults” for awakening a person’s sensory modality to help them sense pleasure and feel engaged.

In addition, neurofeedback (a type of biofeedback that focuses on brain waves) has shown promise in helping patients with complex PTSD learn to change the activity of their brain waves to help them become calmer, more self-observant, and better able to engage with others.

Healing from Complex Trauma

By restoring self-awareness and learning to focus on what’s happening between your rational and emotional brains, you gain control of your reactions.  Dr. Van Der Kolk states, “People get better by befriending themselves. People can leave the trauma behind if they learn to feel safe in their bodies—they can feel the pleasure to know what they know and feel what they feel. The brain does change because of trauma and now we have tools to help people be quiet and present versus hijacked by the past.”

Turn to our Trauma Institute for Help

The clinicians at The Center for Anxiety and Mood Disorder’s Trauma Institute provide compassionate care through specialized training in complex trauma. For more information, contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.


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