What is Complex Trauma?

What is trauma? A dictionary definition states: “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.

Just as this short definition shows, there are different types of trauma may it be emotional or physical, in adult or life. The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is often used and is familiar to many; however it is limited to assessing in the clinical processes. It came in use in the 1970s to diagnose U.S war veteran suffering from trauma after returning from the Vietnam War. Mayo clinic defines PTSD as (…) “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event”. The triggers are bringing the individual back in the life threatening situation they have experienced at a certain point in time as if it was happening right this instant.

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The term Complex trauma has been developed to address a different type of trauma born from interpersonal relationships, or the involvement of other individuals. This is when one of the individual is exerting power on the other on several occasions and over a long period. Adding to that, may be some isolation or incapacity to speak. Judith Herman in  Trauma and Recovery is stating “the core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections”. The notion of empowerment is essential to healing for the trauma survivors; we will address it in future posts.

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Another point I would like to stress is the importance of being seen: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness” from Peter A. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger. Humans are social beings. From the different quotes above, we can take that one of the key concepts is relationships. Especially in pre-verbal and early childhood, a healthy relationship and contact with the carer is primordial to develop a sense of safety and worthiness. An individual sometimes only needs another to recognize their feelings and emotions to feel validated.

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