Complex PTSD: What Exactly is It?

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The struggle with mental or emotional illness is largely an unseen one. Most people who battle internal demons appear, to others, to be perfectly physically healthy. It can be difficult for some people to understand that someone who seems healthy most of the time can be completely unwell and unable to control their emotional responses occasionally. This lack of understanding leads to some folks believing that those suffering from mental illness or behavioral/emotional disorders are weak or lying about their issues. That stigma is multiplied when the condition you’re struggling with isn’t recognized as an actual disorder, as is the case with Complex PTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder, also called C-PTSD).

C-PTSD is generally believed to exist in people exposed to prolonged abuse/neglect during formative years, those who have been victims of entrapment/kidnapping and other similarly disempowering situations, and those whose self-identity is repeatedly undermined by abuse or trauma. These individuals may suffer in silence for years, experiencing a wide array of traumatic events that only worsen their condition. Most people who suffer from C-PTSD report that they felt that they were unable to leave the situation that was harming them, and they may have have internalized and ignored their pain for years as the only way to survive a situation they could not escape.

The problem with ignoring trauma and psychological damage is that it won’t just go away on its own.  Thankfully, if individuals seek out therapy, it is possible to make real progress with the symptoms of C-PTSD with lots of personal work and support. Cannabis can play a major role in treating symptoms as they arise and controlling emotional outbursts/behavioral symptoms.

So what are the symptoms of C-PTSD? They vary widely from person to person, as do most symptoms of mental health issues. Some of the more universal aspects, however, include unnecessary risk-taking/self-destructive behavior, short-term dissociative episodes, amnesia, overpowering feelings of anger/rage, difficulty regulating emotions, difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships, perceived helplessness and somatic distress, in addition to standard PTSD symptoms. Many people with Complex PTSD are mistakenly diagnosed with other conditions, such as borderline personality disorder. (See an excellent graphic examining the overlap of symptoms between the two conditions here).

Many people with C-PTSD also present symptoms of anxiety and/or depression-related conditions. Because of the complicated nature of C-PTSD, it can be difficult to accurately diagnose. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) has recommendations for clinicians working with those suffering from C-PTSD that will help with the establishment of a workable treatment plan. Many of these resources are  also valuable for those struggling with C-PTSD, as well as the people who love them. Understanding how extended trauma during formative years impacts personality development and behavioral patterns is the first step in correcting any disordered behavioral patterns.

Unfortunately, the American Psychiatric Association has chosen for two editions running to omit C-PTSD as a distinct diagnosis from PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, the current edition of which is also called the DSM-V.  While the diagnostic manual may not include C-PTSD, there is definitely a consensus among therapists that the condition exists, and many work diligently to establish workable treatment plans and therapeutic models for people with C-PTSD. Depending on the individual, treatment may range from standard talk therapy to  eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and more focused forms of psychotherapy.

Individuals with C-PTSD, much like people suffering from traditional PTSD, may experience immediate relief from sensations of panic, fear, rage, and anger with the aid of cannabis. Cannabis may also help facilitate a calm, rational exploration of one’s emotions and memories, which can be beneficial throughout the therapy process (though not in the actual sessions). Cannabis treatment may also help in cases of triggering events.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Complex PTSD, please approach the situation with patience and compassion. Because of the complicated nature of their traumatic past, it can take significant time and effort to undo the damage. Those struggling with this condition deserve love and support while they work to reprogram their physical and emotional responses to stress and other negative stimuli. Try to remember that not all scars are visible, but that doesn’t make them less serious.


Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt under  (CC BY 2.0)  via Wikimedia Commons