What Complex PTSD Feels Like

CPTSD is feeling empty in the arms of a lover

Scared when someone says it's safe

And broken when the world thinks you're whole


This blog post is written from one person's lived experience and should not be mistaken for medical advice or generalized information.


I was introduced to the concept of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) over a year ago by my trauma-focused therapist. They encouraged me to read Pete Walker's Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I did. It wasn't easy seeing so much of my childhood experiences or health issues attributed to these letters no one had said to me before.


C P T S D


Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is often seen as psychological "stress injury" caused by repeated or chronic exposure to traumatic events.* It is not an official clinical diagnosis, but more and more trauma-informed professionals are shifting to see how CPTSD may be affecting their clients who are coming in with diagnosed borderline personality disorder or a bipolar disorder or suicidal thoughts and episodes of self-harming and who are not finding lasting relief.


*Please bear in mind that traumatic events are not so much defined by what actually happens as they are defined by how the body responds.


When trauma occurs in a confined time space (an accident, an assault, a major loss), we talk about it in terms of PTSD. We get that a traumatic event would lead to a traumatic response and a person may need a great deal of support and time in healing from that (while someone else may not).


When you are faced with many major traumas or ongoing and chronic exposure to trauma, for example, your body starts keeping track of your responses in anticipation for the next major stressor. This is all the more true when talking about early exposure or childhood traumas such as sexual abuse, neglect, or physical violence.


Your body learns responses to quicken your reactions and use less energy in deciding what to do next. It learns "triggers" that will rev-up that response automatically, no matter if the threat is "real" or not.


Because everyone's experience of trauma is unique (e.g. two different people each in abusive relationships still do not have the "same" experience), and the body's response varies on a bunch of other factors, too, it can be hard to tell what CPTSD "looks like."


I've been paying attention lately and trying to be more "feeling" about feelings instead of dissociating. I've been trying to say words like "dissociating" because I only learned in my 30s this is a trauma response and have been doing it since at least elementary school. I did not know that some people don't dissociate from their bodies. We don't know what's left and right if we never ask!


Here's an article I wrote about dissociation if you want to know more: https://www.verywellhealth.com/dissociation-definition-5188911


Examples of what CPTSD feels like / looks like


If you experience these, please seek professional support because with trauma-informed help, you can start recovering (AKA rewiring your brain!)

  • Feeling other people's feelings very intensely but not feeling your own feelings or emotions hardly at all

  • Vivid flashbacks to times and spaces you experienced trauma or you were stuck in dissociatives states

  • Lucid nightmares that haunt you throughout the day

  • All-or-nothing thinking or simplifying the word into safe and unsafe, good and bad, and being unable to see/accept/understand gray (this is a tool you used to keep you safe as a kid but it isn't suitable for adult life which is full of greys)

  • Extreme inner critic to the point your inner critic is criticizing your inner critic

  • Anxiety to distressing levels

  • Jumpiness, quick to scream, quick to be startled, quick to respond

  • ADHD-like stimming behaviors including self-soothing via self-harming (skin-picking, pinching, biting)

  • Deeply ingrained distrust of world, people, places, or things

  • Codependent behaviors (you may even have been called "codependent" or toxic in relationships)

  • Sudden desires to flee or escape social situations and isolate

  • Substance use struggles

  • Discomfort for small talk, listening to people's stories, feeling trapped in conversations

  • Abandonment and secure attachment issues

  • Feeling like no one really understands you, everyone "connects" but you are on the outside, you are just somehow "other"

  • Self-abandoning (avoiding conflict and going along with things you don't feel comfortable with)

  • Rage, loneliness, irritability, sudden mood swings or changes

  • Digestive problems

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Cognitive patterns and deep-seated beliefs that hold you back including that you alone are not worthy or loveable outside your accomplishments

  • AN INTENSE FEELING LIKE AN IMPOSTER

  • FEELING LIKE WHATEVER HAPPENED WASN'T BAD ENOUGH TO CAUSE THESE THINGS

  • FEELING LIKE THIS IS TRUE FOR OTHERS BUT NOT YOU (WHAT HAPPENED WASN'T THAT BAD, OTHERS HAVE IT WORSE)


Now- WTF is all this about eh? Everytime I talk about CPTSD, I feel I can see a scroll of potential traumas going through the person's mind, trying to figure out WHAT HAPPENED.


WAS IT THAT BAD


NOTHING SHE'S BEEN THROUGH COULD HAVE BEEN THAT BAD


SHE'S MAKING IT UP


SHE'S SO NORMAL


AND SUCCESSFUL


AND... you would never know. People who live with conditions like these often become VERY skilled in blending in and modelling behavior of what to do (both of which are exhausting by the way).


Positive traits

There are some positives. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but for example, I'm incredible under pressure and in emergencies. I think quickly, act responsibly, and put myself secondary to whoever I am with. I do not "sweat the small stuff" either.


Increased stress barely phases me. Real life problems? Give em. Big talks? Let's have em. I am also told I'm incredibly intuitive, empathetic, and non-judgemental. I also attribute these to being someone who's focused her nearly 33 years more on other people's feelings than my own out of preservation or just because that's the role I took at home and it followed me!


If any of this sounds familiar or if you're continually seeking help only to get more diagnoses of evermore increasingly serious mental illnesses, read Pete Walker's book.


You can also watch this video where Dr. Jessica Taylor, author of Sexy but Psycho, makes a point when she says people seem to be able to understand trauma and traumatic response in dogs and animals better than humans.




Thanks for getting to the end! You're awesome.


-M



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