You can’t quite put your finger on it, but something just feels ‘off’. You’re drinking more than usual just to cope with everyday life, picking fights with those closest to you for no good reason, and ultimately feel like you’re spiralling into a black hole.
Anxiety, depression—the feelings associated with those are well-documented and familiar to many of us who’ve experienced these either personally or through someone close to us. But this, this feels different and it may be you’re one of the millions of Australians with Complex PTSD.
A hidden epidemic, Complex PTSD—also known as Complex Trauma—is not something many people are even aware they have. In fact, it’s often something which cannot be diagnosed until seeking treatment. So, what is it and how does Complex PTSD differ from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)?
“PTSD is caused by experiencing one traumatic event—a car accident, a war; it’s one terrifying moment where the fight or flight response occurs,” explains Diane Young, a Trauma and Addiction Specialist at South Pacific Private Hospital on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. “But when it comes to Complex PTSD, you’ve experienced repeated events like that, often starting in childhood—physical or emotional abuse, neglect, suicide, being raised by someone with a substance abuse or mental health illness; it has to be series of events.”
So how are you meant to know if this might be something you’re battling in secret? There are five tell-tale signs…
1. You’re Angry All The Time
Perhaps your manager—who you normally love working with—questions why you’ve not been performing of late, or it may be a close friend who asks why you’ve been constantly cancelling on her last-minute. In both scenarios you lash out, but you don’t even really know why. You’re on edge, and those nearest to you will bear the brunt. “There will be lots of conflict in these people’s lives, especially with those they’re closest to,” explains Diane.
2. You Have New (Bad) Habits
Smoking, drinking, gambling, sex, medications—you don’t even really know why but you’re using it as a crutch to avoid or cope with the anxious feelings that have surfaced. It may be that you’re trying to dull flashbacks, or just feel you need it get through the day—whatever the case there’s a definite link between trauma and addiction.
3. You’re Avoiding The Matter
It’s very common for people with Complex Trauma to not even know they have the disorder until they’re in therapy. This is simply because the brain does what it does best: protects us from reliving traumatic events. This will surface in a couple of ways; you might have no recollection of the trauma from childhood, you’ll disassociate from it completely; or you might create a new version of events where the trauma wasn’t as bad as it actually was. “The brain has a lot to do with how we process emotion and memory. People with Complex Trauma bury experiences as children, then as adults they tend to go a bit delusional or live in denial,” explains Diane.
4. You Need To Be In Control Of Everything
Trauma experienced in childhood—a time when we are at our most powerless and innocent—can result in the adverse effect in adulthood, making us do anything we can to maintain feelings of control. There are many ways this can manifest—from controlling the actions of those around you to controlling money, food, and even other people emotions by people-pleasing—this is a compulsive need to keep others happy. “Conversely, people with Complex Trauma may become quite driven—so extremely functional. These people don’t want to feel that way again so in their mind, if they have money they have power.”
5. You Feel Empty
While this can be an emotion attached to depression, it’s also a red flag for Complex Trauma. “These people come to therapy as they’re not feeling like themselves—they have no motivation or they’re experiencing anxiety,” explains Diane. “Oftentimes they’ll say ‘I don’t feel like I’m living my best life’—they have no meaning or purpose.” It’s not until they’re in therapy that the reasons why unfold. Diane says this is also why group therapy is best for the treatment of Complex Trauma, like that offered by South Pacific Private Hospital, as it’s not until you hear and sympathise with others who’ve experienced traumatic pasts that you can recognise and appreciate what you have also been through.
Where Can You Seek Help If You Feel This Might Be You?
Firstly, head to the South Pacific Private Hospital website and take an online self-assessment to get a better understanding of whether key indicators of Complex Trauma apply to your situation. You can then reach out for a free, confidential and professional phone assessment on 1800 063 332 to see if the treatment programs are right for you. Alternatively, speak with your GP.
The good news? “People with Complex PTSD can recover, it will take time, it’s a process and not easy but I believe they can,” says Diane. “It’s about gaining an understanding of why they do the things they do – what causes them to act the way they do.”
Brought to you by South Pacific Private Hospital.