When we think of trauma, we often imagine a single, isolated event such as a car accident, violent assault, or natural disaster. However, trauma can also be complex, stemming from repeated exposure to traumatic experiences such as abuse or neglect. This type of trauma, known as complex trauma, can have long-lasting effects on our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. In this article, we will explore the nature of complex trauma and the hidden scars it can leave.
What is Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma is a type of trauma that involves prolonged, repeated, and overwhelming exposure to traumatic events or situations that are prolonged which often occurs in childhood within the context of an interpersonal relationship. It can involve various types of abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. Complex trauma often affects development and identity and has a long-term impact on relationships, emotional regulation, and a sense of safety.
Complex trauma can be caused by a range of experiences, such as physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, racial discrimination, or living in a war zone. An example is a child growing up in a household with substance abuse or mental illness and also experiencing neglect and emotional abuse. (Read my article on the Adverse Childhood Experiences)
- ongoing abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual)
- abandonment or perceived abandonment
- prolonged emotional neglect
- lack of secure attachment figure
- extreme financial instability, homelessness
- going in and out of foster care system
- witnessing violence at home or in communities
- growing up in a household with substance abuse
- mental health struggles in family members
How does Complex Trauma differ from other forms of trauma?
Complex trauma differs from other forms of trauma in that it is ongoing, repetitive, and often involves interpersonal relationships.
It can be a deep and hidden wound that can go unnoticed for years. It’s unlike single-event trauma, which can be easier to recognize and treat. The painful truth is that many of us may have experienced this type of trauma without even realizing it. These traumatic incidents can appear trivial, a “normal” part of childhood or adolescence. But the impact of complex trauma can be profound and enduring, accumulating over time and causing a variety of physical and emotional symptoms that can last long after the trauma has passed.
The Effects of Complex Trauma
The effects of complex trauma can be severe and long-lasting. Also, children experiencing severe and intense psychological distress often develop various coping mechanisms to numb the impact of their traumatic experiences. Some of the signs which you may experience may include:
1. Difficulty with relationships and attachment:
One of the most significant effects of complex trauma is difficulty with relationships and attachment. People who have experienced trauma in their developmental years may find it difficult to relate to others in a healthy way and form close relationships. They may also struggle with feelings of isolation and disconnection from others.
Trust, communication, and intimacy can be challenging for survivors of complex trauma, as they may struggle with feelings of vulnerability and a fear of being hurt or abandoned.
2. Difficulty with emotional regulation:
Those who have experienced complex trauma may find it difficult to regulate their emotions. They may experience intense feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, or sadness, and struggle to manage these emotions in healthy ways. This can lead to depression, impulsive behavior, self-harm, substance abuse, and other harmful coping mechanisms.
Complex trauma can erode an individual’s ability to trust others, as they may have experienced betrayal, abuse, or neglect from caregivers or other trusted individuals. This can lead to a general mistrust of others and difficulty forming close relationships. It may also make it challenging to seek help or support from others, as they may fear being hurt or rejected.
4. Negative self-perception:
Survivors of complex trauma may struggle with a negative self-perception, viewing themselves as damaged or flawed. This can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of shame or guilt, and a sense of being disconnected from others. These feelings can impact many areas of an individual’s life, including their relationships, work, and overall sense of well-being.
5. Difficulty with physical and emotional boundaries:
Complex trauma can impact one’s ability to establish and maintain healthy physical and emotional boundaries. Survivors may struggle with asserting their needs and may have difficulty saying no or setting limits with others. They may also experience a sense of dissociation or disconnection from their own bodies, leading to difficulty identifying physical sensations or recognizing their own physical and emotional needs.
6. Struggles with self-care:
Survivors of complex trauma may find it challenging to prioritize their own self-care. They may struggle with feelings of worthlessness or may be so focused on survival that they neglect their physical and emotional health. This can lead to difficulties with sleep, nutrition, and physical health, as well as mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. Developing healthy self-care practices is an important part of healing from complex trauma.
7. Difficulty coping with life’s challenges
The scars of complex trauma can run so deep that even the simplest tasks in life can feel like a monumental challenge. For those who are suffering from its effects, coping with life’s challenges can feel like an insurmountable task.
They may feel like they lack the resilience to overcome the obstacles in their path, constantly battling anxiety, depression, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Every hurdle can feel like an uphill battle, leaving them feeling helpless and hopeless. The emotional and psychological effects of complex trauma can be so severe that even the thought of facing another day can be daunting. The struggle to keep moving forward can be a daily battle, taking every ounce of strength just to get through the day.
8. Poor Health & Chronic Medical Conditions
The physical effects of complex trauma can include chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and autoimmune disorders. Studies have also shown that individuals who have experienced complex trauma may have a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Complex Trauma is stored in the body
In his groundbreaking book “The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel van der Kolk explains how trauma affects the body and brain. Here are some key principles explained in the book:
Trauma is stored in the body:
Trauma is not just an emotional or psychological experience – it is also a physical one. Complex trauma, and any traumatic experiences can cause changes in the body and brain that can last long after the traumatic event has ended.
The autonomic nervous system can be stuck in fight-flight-freeze mode:
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating many of the body’s automatic functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing. When someone experiences trauma, their autonomic nervous system can become stuck in a state of hyperarousal, leading to feelings of anxiety, hypervigilance, and a constant sense of danger.
The prefrontal cortex is affected by trauma:
The prefrontal cortex is part of the brain that is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and impulse control. Trauma can impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, leading to difficulties with these types of cognitive processes.
Healing from Complex Trauma
While complex trauma can have lasting effects, with patience and self-compassion, it is possible to heal from its effects and live a fulfilling and healthy life. Trauma can be difficult to overcome on your own, and working with a trained professional can provide the support and guidance needed to heal.
When seeking support in healing from complex trauma, it is important to work with trauma-focused modalities or with professionals who are truly trauma-informed.
Here are some important areas to focus on when healing from trauma.
Awareness of your emotions
For many of us who have experienced complex trauma, emotions can be overwhelming and difficult to manage. It can be tempting to avoid or suppress emotions in order to cope with the discomfort they bring. However, avoiding emotions can actually perpetuate the cycle of trauma and make it more difficult to heal.
By becoming aware of your emotions, you can start to recognize the patterns and triggers that cause emotional distress. This awareness can help you to regulate your emotions more effectively, which is an important part of healing from complex trauma. Through therapy and healing modalities, you can learn tools to help them identify and manage their emotions in a healthy way.
One of the key principles of healing from complex trauma is recognizing the connection between the mind and body. Trauma is stored in the body, so it’s important to work on both the physical and psychological aspects of healing. This can involve practices such as TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises), breathwork, meditation, and other somatic work which can help release stored trauma and promote relaxation and healing.
Reparenting the inner child:
Many people who have experienced complex trauma have a wounded inner child that needs healing. Reparenting the inner child involves providing the care and nurturing that was missing during childhood. This can involve deep inner introspection, childhood trauma work, learning self-regulation, practicing self-care and self-compassion, creating a safe inner space, and building safe relationships in which we can express ourselves authentically.
Breaking free from limiting beliefs:
Another important principle of healing from complex trauma is breaking free from the limiting beliefs that were created during childhood.
Our childhood and past experiences, good and bad, are imprinted within us as core beliefs, or “truths” we hold about who we are and how the world works. They impact all areas of life including how we feel, think, and act.
These beliefs can include negative self-talk, feelings of shame and unworthiness, and a sense of helplessness or powerlessness. By releasing those beliefs that are no longer serving us and replacing them with more positive, empowering ones, we can start to heal our emotional wounds and reconnect with our authentic selves.
Healing from complex trauma can seem linke a daunting, long and challenging process, and we might feel easily triggered but through healing, we can build resilience. Here are some elements which can help you build resilience:
- Gaining an understanding of the impact of attachment and developmental trauma
- Learning how to work with the nervous system to support healing
- Using techniques for self-regulation and emotional balance
- Building a supportive community.
Complex trauma can have a profound impact on an individual’s life, but it is possible to heal and recover. By understanding the hidden scars of complex trauma and seeking professional help and support, you can release the impact of trauma and move forward in a healthy and fulfilling way. Remember, healing is possible, and everyone deserves to live a happy and healthy life.