What Is Complex Trauma?

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

“The initial trauma of a young child may go underground, but it will return to haunt us.”

James Garbarino


Complex Trauma (Type II Trauma, C-PTSD) is the consequence of repeated/prolonged exposure to life-threatening, terrifying, or physically violating experiences occurring during developmentally vulnerable times. These experiences often involve harm or abandonment from a caregiver, marring an individual's personality development, and tainting their basic belief system. During early childhood, the brain undergoes critical periods of maturation. Trauma causes disruptions in the healthy development of parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, responsible for the encoding of new memories, and the amygdala, responsible for emotional processing. These underdeveloped parts result in complications in relational functioning, dissociation, emotional dysregulation, somatic distress, and more.

"Complex"

highlights how chronic trauma impedes the development of an individuals coherent personality, their ability to have healthy, trusting relationships and threatens the integrity of the body. A child living through constant trauma does not receive adequate resources to meet the challenges of life. As an individual experiences life, the pervasive sense of external danger contributes to the turbulence in relationships, feelings of panic, and avoidance of places. Additionally, an individual's internal reality becomes dangerous. Ill-equipped, an individual is unable to self-soothe and control their emotions, make decisions, and foster self-esteem. Quite likely, their identity is left feeling fragmented and obscure. Because complex trauma typically occurs during ages marked by dependence on others, relationships throughout life are not experienced as reliable or as a safe place for support. Research shows these effects are compounded if a person is of lower SES, incarcerated, if a person has developmental or intellectual deficits and if they are homeless.

Therapeutic approaches including CBT, DBT, EMDR have proven effective in treating PTSD, Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and other mental disorders associated with trauma. This post is for informational purposes only and does not replace a medical diagnosis from a healthcare provider or supplement treatment provided by a healthcare provider.


I aim to avoid "leaving you hanging"! I will be providing more information on the specifics regarding traumatic childhood experiences and how complex trauma impacts personality & brain development, emotional regulation, beliefs, and relationships.

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