Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a series of painful experiences that negatively impacted your emotional well-being? If so, you might be experiencing the effects of complex trauma.

Photo by Alex Green
Photo by Alex Green

Identifying Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is more than just a single traumatic event or traumatic experience; it involves prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often leading to feelings of powerlessness and entrapment.

Definition and Characteristics

Unlike a single traumatic incident, complex trauma refers to multiple traumatic events that involve interpersonal, emotional, or physical threats during childhood or adolescence. These events are often accompanied by a sense of powerlessness and entrapment, leaving long-lasting effects on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being.

For example, a serious injury might be considered a single traumatic event; however, ongoing childhood abuse constitutes complex trauma, which can span months or years.

Common Causes

Various situations can lead to complex trauma, including:

  • Abusive relationships, where physical, emotional, or sexual abuse may occur
  • Childhood neglect, where a child’s basic needs for love, care, and attention are not met
  • Exposure to violence, such as witnessing or experiencing violence in the home or community

Childhood neglect, on the other hand, can manifest in physical, emotional, or mental forms, leading to complex trauma and various psychological symptoms.
Exposure to violence is another potential cause of complex trauma. This can include witnessing or experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual violence, which can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being, especially if the trauma happened during childhood.

Recognizing these situations is essential for understanding the full scope of complex trauma and seeking appropriate support.

The Impact of Complex Trauma on Mental Health

Complex trauma can profoundly affect an individual’s mental health, resulting in various emotional and cognitive consequences related to traumatic stress and psychological trauma.

Emotional Consequences

Complex trauma can lead to various emotional symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness. When unresolved childhood trauma persists into adulthood, it creates an environment conducive to further emotional trauma, exacerbating feelings of apprehension and powerlessness.

Insufficient sleep can also intensify trauma symptoms, making it difficult to maintain emotional equilibrium. To help manage some of the emotional symptoms associated with complex trauma, practicing deep breathing exercises can be beneficial. Engaging in physical activity, movement, and vocal toning can also help individuals feel more connected and improve their emotional state.

Cognitive Effects

Complex trauma can alter an individual’s thought patterns, leading to negative beliefs about oneself and the world. Cognitive deficits associated with complex trauma include impaired memory, difficulties with attention and concentration, and decreased executive functioning. These cognitive impairments can significantly impact an individual’s daily functioning and overall quality of life.

Moreover, complex trauma can significantly impact brain development, potentially leading to long-term cognitive impairments. Recognizing and addressing these cognitive effects is vital in healing and regaining control over one’s thoughts and beliefs.

Photo by Engin Akyurt

Physical Manifestations of Complex Trauma

In addition to the physical and emotional reactions, complex trauma can also manifest physically through somatic symptoms and nervous system disruptions, which may lead to physical harm beyond the emotional reactions and cognitive consequences.

Somatic Symptoms

Physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues, and chronic pain can be linked to complex trauma. These somatic symptoms may indicate complex trauma and should be addressed appropriately by a mental health professional. It’s important to recognize these physical manifestations as potential signs of deep-seated emotional pain rather than dismissing them as unrelated to the traumatic experiences.

Addressing these somatic symptoms through the assistance of a trauma therapist can kickstart the healing process, both emotionally and physically. Finding relief from these physical symptoms can contribute to a better quality of life and overall well-being during recovery.

Nervous System Disruption

Complex trauma can disrupt the nervous system, leading to self-regulation and stress response issues. This disruption can manifest as hypervigilance, difficulty regulating emotions, and difficulty concentrating.

Learning to self-regulate one’s nervous system through mindful breathing, sensory input, and grounding can help alleviate these disruptions and improve overall functioning in daily life.

Treating Complex Trauma

With appropriate treatment and support, healing from complex trauma is achievable.

Trauma-Informed Therapy

Trauma-informed therapy, also known as trauma therapy, is a therapeutic approach that addresses memories, thoughts, and feelings related to traumatic events. Various therapeutic approaches, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Somatic Experiencing (SE), can help individuals process and heal from complex trauma.

There are also newer approaches that can build on these foundational therapies, including Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy, the Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB), Neurofeedback, and other emerging, well researched therapies.

These therapies can potentially reduce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and provide a safe space for individuals to explore their trauma without fear of judgment or re-traumatization. Working with a trauma therapist specializing in these approaches can significantly improve an individual’s chances of recovery and emotional healing.

Support Systems

Establishing a support network that includes friends, family, and professionals is key to healing from complex trauma.

A solid support network can supply emotional and practical aid, assist with problem-solving, and confer a sense of belonging and connection. Connecting with others for support can assist in diminishing feelings of isolation and loneliness, enhance mood, and foster overall mental health and well-being.

Constructing a support network can be challenging, particularly for individuals who have experienced traumatic events. It can be difficult to develop trust and to open oneself to vulnerability. However, engaging in social activities, rekindling old friendships, joining a support group for trauma survivors, and contributing to volunteer work can help establish and strengthen support systems.

Self-Care Strategies

Implementing self-care practices, such as exercise, mindfulness, and healthy habits, can aid recovery.

Regular exercise can assist in reducing stress and anxiety, enhancing mood, and promoting overall physical and mental well-being. Mindfulness and meditation can help decrease stress and anxiety, enhance mood, and advance general physical and mental well-being.

Furthermore, obtaining adequate sleep and adhering to proper sleep hygiene are critical for healing from complex trauma, as they aid in decreasing stress and anxiety, enhancing mood, and facilitating overall physical and mental health.

Consuming nutritious food and emphasizing nutrition are essential for recovering from complex trauma, as they aid in supplying the body with the necessary nutrients for optimal functioning, decreasing inflammation, and enhancing overall physical and mental well-being.

Photo by Stanley Morales

Challenges in Healing from Complex Trauma

Although the journey to heal from complex trauma presents certain challenges, they are not insurmountable. This section will tackle the difficulties with trust, vulnerability, and coping with triggers during the healing process.

Trust is often the first hurdle to overcome. It can be difficult to trust others after experiencing trauma.

Trust and Vulnerability

Healing from complex trauma often requires rebuilding trust and allowing oneself to be vulnerable in therapy and relationships.

Trust and vulnerability are essential components of the healing process, as traumatic events can interfere with a person’s sense of security and make it challenging to trust others. Developing intimate relationships, which requires courage and time, is imperative for trauma recovery.

By being genuinely vulnerable and exercising self-compassion, one can:

  • Decrease stress and anxiety
  • Enhance one’s mood
  • Foster overall mental health and well-being
  • Aid in developing a sense of self-worth and acceptance
  • Promote personal growth and healing.

Coping with Triggers

Identifying and managing triggers is an essential part of the healing process for individuals recovering from complex trauma. Individuals can identify potential triggers by being mindful of their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations when they encounter a potential trigger. By recognizing these triggers, individuals can better prepare themselves to manage their emotional responses.

Individuals can utilize coping strategies such as grounding, mindfulness, and relaxation exercises to manage triggers effectively. These strategies can help individuals regain control over their emotions and prevent triggers from derailing their progress in healing from complex trauma.

About the Author

Brandi Barefoot is the swing shift supervisor in the Residential Treatment Program at Corner Canyon Health Centers, and she has extensive experience working in mental health and addiction treatment centers. Her experience and education have led her to a comprehensive understanding of holistic care, and her personal experiences have given her an unwavering passion and commitment to the field. Through her writing she strives to break down barriers, foster understanding, and promote a brighter future for individuals and communities affected by mental health and addiction concerns. She has a comprehensive understanding of the work Corner Canyon does and shares some of it in her blogs.

Liz Lund, MPA

Liz is originally from lush green Washington State. She is a life enthusiast and a huge fan of people. Liz has always loved learning why people are the way they are. She moved to UT in 2013 and completed her bachelors degree in Psychology in 2016. After college Liz worked at a residential treatment center and found that she was not only passionate about people, but also administration. Liz is recently finished her MPA in April 2022. Liz loves serving people and is excited and looking forward to learning about; and from our clients here at Corner Canyon.
When Liz is not busy working she love being outdoors, eating ice cream, taking naps, and spending time with her precious baby girl and sweet husband.