Childhood Abuse and Complex PTSD

You may already be familiar with the term 'Post-traumatic Stress Disorder' (PTSD). You may have heard of this condition as one that affects war veterans, survivors of accidents and natural disasters, as well as those who have experienced single acts of violence. However, you may be asking yourself, "What about the people who have experienced childhood abuse and trauma? What do they develop?"

What is C-PTSD? How is it different from PTSD?

Often times, individuals who have experienced severe and repetitive childhood abuse and trauma are diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as C-PTSD. Some examples of ongoing trauma that may cause C-PTSD to develop include long-term physical or sexual abuse, ongoing domestic violence, commercial sexual abuse such as trafficking or prostitution, being a prisoner of war, or being a refugee. This is different from PTSD, which typically results from short-lived trauma. On the surface, it may seem like PTSD and C-PTSD are quite similar - which is true as people with these disorders both experienced something deeply traumatic that causes them to experience symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, hyperarousal, insomnia, etc. However, people with C-PTSD experience all of these symptoms as well as a change in self-concept. Going through abuse and trauma as a child interrupts one's entire course of psychological and neurological development. So, what makes C-PTSD so different from PTSD is the way it manifests itself internally, and the lifelong effects it has on a person and their entire outlook on life.

What does living with C-PSTD look like?

C-PTSD involves all of the core symptoms of PTSD such as traumatic intrusions, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity, but it also includes additional symptoms that reflect the global impact of the trauma. Some of these symptoms may include:

  • Distorted perceptions of the victim's perpetrator

  • Feelings of helplessness

  • Shame and anger from ongoing abuse

  • Difficulty controlling emotions

  • Negative self-view

  • Struggling to form interpersonal relationships

  • Feelings of depersonalization (feeling like they are unreal)

  • Derealization (feeling like the world around them is unreal)

  • Dissociative amnesia (being unable to remember some or all of the trauma)

  • Identity confusion (being unsure of who they are or feeling like the trauma destroyed their sense of self)

  • Identity alteration (switching between dissociative parts, or alters)

Not only do individuals with C-PTSD experience symptoms related to their mental states, they often are vulnerable to physical symptoms that are associated with their internal pain and stress. These physical symptoms can range in severity from neck and back pain to developing a type of musculoskeletal, endocrine, or thyroid disorder. For many, the condition poses life-long challenges, and recovery often takes time.

How is C-PTSD treated?

There are several treatment options for people who suffer from C-PTSD that can help them reduce and manage their symptoms. Some of these treatment options include psychotherapy with a focus on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and medication. In addition to these treatments, individuals with C-PTSD are encouraged to reach out to organizations like Out of the Storm ( for support and to gain a greater understanding of their condition.

If you want to know more about what being diagnosed and living with C-PTSD is like, check out this article on Amanda's Story

Written By: Dayna