Typically we use the word trauma to talk about a highly stressful event — usually referring to something that happened one time. This could be a car accident, an isolated instance of sexual assault or a miscarriage.
But what is complex trauma?
Psychologist and trauma expert Dr. Christine Courtois explained it this way: “[it’s] a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts.”
So what does that mean practically?
For some, complex trauma might be the result of growing up in an abusive household where emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse was present. For others, complex trauma might have stemmed from fighting for our country in a long-term military deployment. The reality is complex trauma can look different for each person who experiences it, and the impact it has on an individual’s mental health can be, well, complex.
There are many ways complex trauma can manifest, so we asked our Mighty community to share with us one way their experience of trauma affected their mental health.
Here’s what they had to say:
- “I have trouble identifying and feeling emotions because my body is so used to dissociating to protect itself. I don’t mean the painful emotions but even the happy ones.” — Naddy Y.
- “Sometimes it feels like everything is a threat. I’m jumpy and constantly on guard. It is as if my brain is a guarded fortress and the soldiers stand out front and don’t want to let anyone in. It’s exhausting.” — Megan K.
- “I struggle to have genuine, close relationships because I don’t know how to develop them. When I’m willing to put myself out there, I am too much. I constantly feel like a failure in life, even when I’m successful with something. I struggle to be vulnerable and nurturing with my kids, tending to keep them at arm’s length.” — Abbie M.
- “My mental health has deteriorated to the point I can’t even tolerate someone raising their voice near me. Even if they’re just excited about something, or calling a friendly greeting. It causes panic attacks and dissociative episodes. I cry and vomit from anxiety.” — Missa D.
- “I’m healing from all my trauma and it feels worse than going through the trauma itself. The nightmares have created spouts of insomnia throughout the years. The flashbacks have stopped my world of reality. The outbursts of tears come without warning, when all is fine. It’s dragged me down so much that it kept me in bed for months on end. I’m still trying to get myself to get out to be more active. It’s a battle of reminding myself how important it is to not only to move on in life, but breaking free from the trauma itself and reminding myself that I am safe and all is well.” — Tatauq M.
- “The most challenging aspect of living with complex trauma is how easy it is to slip back into old, unhealthy coping mechanisms.” — Marina B.
- “I struggle with anxiety and agoraphobia. I get depressed and withdrawn more. I’m sensitive to raised voices, I struggle with healthy boundaries and codependency as I still struggle with trying to manage other people’s emotions and reactions too often. I have a very hard time trusting people, especially men. I have isolated myself a lot and feel like I don’t know how to reach out to people — I hate feeling vulnerable. I watch television shows and I get triggered by things I wouldn’t haven’t thought twice about in the past. I get triggered by phone calls from private and unknown numbers. I feel things either too strongly or not enough — I struggle with dissociation, depersonalization and derealization.” — Shannon Z.
- “I have to ask people if certain basic things upset them because of how much yelling or fighting used to occur because of it. I still can’t hold normal relationships, platonic or romantic, because of how traumatic [my past] relationship was. I’m scared of everything from someone not answering me to loud sudden noises… I’m barely functional most of the time.” — Hunter G.
- “It’s very hard to love or be loved. One of the scariest things I feel. The utter vulnerability of it, knowing what could happen. I keep repeating to myself love doesn’t hurt, but even then, it’s scary as hell. I don’t want to be abused simply because I love.” — Juniper H.
- “I’m a victim of sexual abuse and two rapes it causes me to be very uncomfortable around any man even my boyfriend sometimes. I have been suicidal because of those situations that I constantly relive in my head which causes me to not be able to sleep or results in drug use.” — Shanda P.
- “I was diagnosed with anxiety. It’s social mostly. I find myself being very reluctant and shy around men. It’s hard to go out in public and get jobs or even order food.” — Alycia M.
- “I have so many triggers sometimes it feels like I’m always in the middle of a panic attack that never goes away. It makes me push and pull people I care about because they can say or do something that triggers me. I’ve had so much trauma of different types; so many things that make my life very difficult.” — Stephanie R.
- “I apologize for everything, even things I couldn’t have possibly controlled. My anxiety reactions can be unpredictable because I have so many triggers from so many situations. I often believe previous abusers and see myself as a burden to other people. It takes a lot for me to trust someone and even more if it is even slightly dented, forget it if it’s completely broken. I have trouble engaging in physical intimacy because my body learned that it is all equivalent to violence. I constantly fear someone I care about is doing something to me behind my back. Sometimes I sit in a parking lot of somewhere I need to go for up to an hour because I am too generally anxious to get out of my car; I’m late to almost everything for similar reasons. And more.” — Violet F.
- “Aloneness. Not emptiness or loneliness. It’s terrifying and sad.” — Nicole S.
- “Sexual abuse when I was a child led me to depression, anxiety and weight problems.” — Dani A.
- “I’m on a trip to see my family right now and it just dawned on me that they don’t actually hate me, in fact, they love me a great deal. I thought that because we rarely talk that they all hated me and thought I was a drama queen because of my mental illnesses. They don’t think I’m a drama queen, they just have trouble understanding me and what I go through. In a strange way it makes me feel better that they don’t understand my struggles.” — Auror B.
If you are a survivor of complex trauma, you’re not alone. Here are some stories written by Mighty contributors that might resonate with you.
- We Can’t Keep Treating Anxiety From Complex Trauma the Same Way We Treat Generalized Anxiety
- 12 Life-Impacting Symptoms Complex PTSD Survivors Endure
- 8 Tips Complex Trauma Survivors Need to Know About Living With Chronic Suicidality
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