If you’re living with the lingering effects of trauma for months or years after your traumatic experience, you may have a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may have encountered information about another condition known as complex PTSD (CPTSD) and wondered whether this label more accurately describes your condition.
But what is PTSD, and what is CPTSD? These two conditions are related but not necessarily the same — and the approaches to treating these two conditions can vary significantly.
Trauma is the term that psychologists use to describe how people feel after dramatic, violent, unnatural, or life-changing events. Trauma is a natural response to unprecedented situations, and while most people will experience some form of trauma in their lives, it is always a cause for concern when it occurs.
A number of different situations can lead to you experiencing trauma. Common sources of trauma include:
- Sexual assault
- Being the victim of crime or violence
- Death of a loved one
- Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or volcanic events
- Physical or mental abuse
- Car accidents
- Military combat
In the immediate aftermath of these events, people can feel shocked, numb, exhausted, or experience overwhelming emotions outside of their control. Psychologists consider these responses to intense and stressful situations to be completely normal and even adaptive, as they help a person protect themselves from further harm.
But when the effects of trauma begin to linger for weeks, months, or years, it becomes a serious mental health condition that needs to be addressed. The effects of trauma that interfere with your everyday life are labelled as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can have a wide range of negative consequences if not treated appropriately.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a collection of detrimental mental health symptoms resulting from a traumatic event that continues well after the event has passed. The symptoms of PTSD fall into four major categories.
- Intrusive symptoms include:
- Nightmares about the traumatic event
- Recurrent memories of the traumatic event
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event
They may also include intense emotional or physiological reactions to events that resemble the traumatic experience.
Avoidant symptoms may include making attempts to avoid memories or feelings related to the traumatic event or avoiding certain places, people, activities, or situations that remind you of the traumatic event.
Negative Mood and Cognition Changes
Negative mood and cognition changes can include:
- Being unable to remember elements of the traumatic event
- Negative beliefs about yourself, others, or the world
- Distorting the facts of the traumatic event in order to blame yourself or others
- Persistent negative mood
- Reduced interest in hobbies or activities
- Feeling estranged or detached from others
The common thread between these changes is the inability to experience positive emotions.
Reactivity symptoms may include:
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Self-destructive behaviour
- Startling easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep problems
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, people need to show evidence of several of these symptoms for over a month and experience significant impairment in their everyday lives as a result of these symptoms.
In the United Kingdom alone, over 2.6 million people live with PTSD at any given time. That’s roughly four percent of the population. While PTSD is hard enough to live with, it is further complicated by the fact that many people with this disorder experience depression, anxiety, or substance use problems as well.
What Is CPTSD?
Complex PTSD is a term used to describe a specific subset of PTSD. CPTSD is typically seen in people who experience traumatic events over and over again. There are a number of events that can lead to CPTSD, including:
- Long-term child abuse
- Being a victim of sex trafficking or human trafficking
- Living through a war or extended conflict
- Chronic domestic abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse
The main difference between CPTSD and PTSD is that people who have experienced chronic trauma show unique challenges associated with their disorder. Specifically, people with CPTSD often have difficulty building or maintaining relationships and regulating their emotions, and they can often struggle with having a clear, stable sense of identity or self.
These symptoms are in addition to the symptoms of PTSD itself, making CPTSD a more difficult mental health challenge to recover from. However, there are a number of effective treatments for both PTSD and CPTSD that can help people along the path to recovery.
Treatments for PTSD and CPTSD
Despite the difficult nature of these trauma disorders, there are several evidence-based treatments that can help people find recovery and regain control over their lives. Most treatments work for both PTSD and CPTSD — though often, people living with CPTSD have a harder time finding treatments that are truly effective.
Thankfully, a number of innovative treatment options can help people struggling with either disorder accelerate their course of recovery. These treatments often work where other interventions have failed and can provide tangible results quickly.
Deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (Deep TMS) is a treatment intervention that brings the findings of neuroscience into clinical application. Using a specialised device placed on the head, a detailed map of your brain, and targeted electromagnetic impulses, Deep TMS can directly activate regions of the brain that show reduced activity as a consequence of a mental health challenge such as PTSD or CPTSD.
When starting Deep TMS, you’ll meet with a team of providers who will map your brain, answer any questions you have, and familiarise you with the equipment and technologies used in Deep TMS.
When your treatment begins, the team will place the specialised helmet onto your head, and electric impulses will travel to regions of the brain affected by your mental health challenges.
Each session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes and can provide lasting results. Brain cells activated by these magnetic impulses begin to fire more often, restoring impacted regions of the brain to a higher level of functioning. This effect grows the more these neurons are stimulated, either by further Deep TMS treatments or by you living a healthier and more productive life in recovery.
Trauma therapy is a specific style of talk therapy to help people overcome challenges such as PTSD or CPTSD. A number of different therapeutic styles can help people regain control over their lives, but some of the most effective include:
Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET)
Prolonged exposure therapy has the longest history of helping people with PTSD. PET therapists work with their clients to build trust and open communication. Ultimately, they aim to help their clients face and reintegrate their traumatic experiences.
While extremely effective, PET is often hard work, and many people are unprepared to go to the lengths required to overcome their difficulties with trauma. PET requires clients to face their issues head-on — and one of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD is to avoid any memories or emotions that are associated with trauma.
But if you are ready to put in the work, no matter what it takes, PET may be an effective solution for you.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a relatively new form of talk therapy for PTSD and CPTSD. EMDR shares much in common with PET, but it adds a unique component to ease the process of facing traumatic experiences without becoming overly reactive or emotional: bilateral stimulation.
Bilateral stimulation is a technique designed to help people through an individual therapy session. It activates both hemispheres of the brain by having the client track an object or light moving from their right field of vision to the left. Other methods include listening to alternating tones played in the right then left ear and rhythmic tapping on the right and left knees by the therapist.
When your attention is brought from one field of sensory experience to the other, different regions of the brain become activated. In trauma therapy, this helps people to face troubling memories or experiences without being overwhelmed. It can help traumatic memories become “unstuck” in the process.
EMDR is an effective and evidence-based process that can help you start feeling better in just a few sessions.
Ketamine-assisted therapy is a new way of accelerating the process of talk therapy. Ketamine is a dissociative drug, meaning it can produce an effect of detachment from both your environment and yourself.
In ketamine-assisted therapy, this detachment can help people talk to a therapist about their traumatic experiences without feeling overwhelmed by them, something that often takes months or years in traditional talk therapy approaches.
A ketamine-assisted therapy session lasts about two hours. The effects of ketamine peak at about the 45-minute mark but can last for up to three hours. However, the healing effect of ketamine-assisted therapy can last a lifetime and can quickly launch people into new lives in recovery.
PTSD, CPTSD, and How to Heal
Regardless of whether you’re living with CPTSD or PTSD, these disorders can lead to devastating consequences if left untreated. But there are effective options for treatment, and starting these therapies is the best thing you can do for your health and well-being.
- Resick, Patricia A., et al. “A critical evaluation of the complex PTSD literature: Implications for dsm‐5.” Journal of Traumatic Stress, vol. 25, no. 3, 2012, pp. 241–251, https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.21699.