What's the Difference Between PTSD and Complex PTSD?

Complex vs Single Incident Trauma

A recent three day trauma workshop got me thinking.

As part of the clinical material presented, we watched a short video of one of the presenters working with a young woman whose drink had been spiked at a bar.

Gently probing for emotion and trauma memories, the therapist supported and encouraged the client, allowing her to approach the incident without discussing the events.

It was touching and inspiring, but also a bit misleading.

A discrete episode of trauma such as this isn’t really comparable to the effects of chronic relational trauma during childhood.

For most of my complex trauma clients, trauma is embedded in their identity.

It’s a big part of who they are.

People who have suffered complex trauma in childhood are “marinated in trauma.”

Christine Courtois

It’s impossible to say who these survivors might have been without the trauma.

Or where and how the trauma has insinuated itself into their personality and experience of self.

Attachment trauma in early childhood is not the same as a car accident or a mugging at 30.

Although the trauma caused by a car accident, disaster or war can be life changing, it is not comparable to the developmental effects of chronic attachment trauma.

Trauma at this stage of life becomes a part of how we relate, our spirituality and sense of meaning, our ability to trust and how we handle stress.

Complex Trauma & the Right Brain

Our brain doubles in size during the first three years of life.

Regulation theorist and clinician Allan Schore argues that during this period, our right brain is dominant.

We communicate and attach through emotions and senses - through sound, smell, touch and visual stimuli. Babies are particularly sensitive to facial expression and so will pick up on a parent’s mood, even if the parent is unaware of the what they are feeling.

Schore also highlights new research that shows that mothers who try to communicate through left brain logic might cause anxious ambivalent attachment in their children. These parents miss the opportunity to bond because they are not speaking a language that their children can understand - the language of the right brain.

Words are Not Enough

As we develop language our left brains come to dominate, but the early experiences we have when the right brain is dominant stay with us.

Our attachment experiences in early life have a profound effect on our identity, our relationships and our sense of self.

In order to treat relational trauma, we need to access areas of the brain that are not part of the logical, thinking mind.

Therapy for Complex Trauma Needs to Treat the Whole Person.

The more intrinsic and far-reaching effects of developmental trauma cannot be healed through a cognitive approach, because they are not based in the “thinking brain.”

Good trauma therapy should take a more holistic approach because our emotional, physical, spiritual and relational selves are all implicated in the profound and intimate damage created through complex trauma.

Hope for survivors of Complex Trauma

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