What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, How is it Different From PTSD and How Can It Affect Your Relationships?

October 31, 2022

Many people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that is the result of an acute traumatic event taking place. Common examples of traumas that can result in PTSD include military service, sexual or physical assault, a car accident or an extreme natural disaster. In most cases, PTSD stems from a single event. But what about people who experiences similar symptoms to PTSD, but have experienced trauma continuously throughout their life?

What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?


Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, while not included in the most recent DSM edition, is a condition related to PTSD that has been gaining increasing recognition by health professionals in recent decades. This can occur when people undergo long-term trauma, such as ongoing abuse in childhood or adulthood, neglect, growing up with a turbulent home life or in poverty, as well as witnessing trauma happen to others over long periods of time or multiple times. Those with C-PTSD experience many symptoms of PTSD and some additional as well, and people who experience trauma at a young age, especially at the hands of a trusted person they were unable to get away from, are more likely to develop the condition.

What is the Difference Between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?


Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks or nightmares reliving the traumatic experience

  • Hyperarousal, or the feeling of constantly being on high alert

  • Experiencing physical or emotional discomfort when confronted with reminders of the trauma

  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma

  • Negative beliefs about yourself, others, and the world around you


Those struggling with C-PTSD may experience some or all of these additional symptoms as well.

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless

  • Difficulty managing emotions

  • Difficulty with friendships and relationships

  • Feeling low or no self worth

  • Struggle to develop or maintain a sense of safety

  • Dissociation, derealization, or depersonalization

    How Can Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Affect Your Relationships?

    Many people who struggle with C-PTSD also struggle in their relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. Those with C-PTSD can have a history of attachment trauma in their childhood, causing them to develop insecure attachment styles in adulthood. When you suffer from mental illness while in a relationship, it can be hard to remember the good times when you feel focused on the lows. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can cause insecurity and jealousy which can permeate our relationships, and we can externalize our negative emotions in ways that cause conflict with others, as opposed to self soothing. People with C-PTSD are also more likely to have traumatic relationship histories, so they can feel unsure about the possibility of building relationships they feel safe in. Both individual and couples therapy can help in these situations.

    How is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Treated?


If you identify with any part of this blog post, consider reaching out to begin therapy. Evidence-based treatments such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, cognitive processing, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) are therapies used to treat survivors of trauma that may be beneficial to you. Here at Be Well, all of our therapists operate from a trauma-informed mindset, and some of our therapists specialize in some of the treatments listed here. Therapists such as Emily Eisler specialize in C-PTSD and related conditions, and Brandon Isaacson is trained to provide EMDR to clients as well.

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